Countdown to a contest entry, part 8.7: but how can I tell if the synopsis I have written is good enough to leave alone?

centurians in bondage

Hello again, campers —
Okay, I promise that this is the last time I shall post an extra post (for this weekend, at least), but after the last couple of days’ intensive discussion of how to write a 1-page synopsis, I thought some of you might appreciate a little guidance on how to tell whether what you have come up with is ready to be sent off.

As it happens, I had such a post rattling around my archives. Who knew?

For the last few posts, I’ve been concentrating upon that bane of writers everywhere, the 1-page synopsis. A 1-page synopsis should be a quick, pithy introduction to the premise, the protagonist, and the central conflict of the book. Or, to cast it in terms that those of you who followed my recent Querypalooza series should find very familiar, an extended version of the descriptive paragraph in a query letter.

So hey, all of you queriers who have been clutching your temples and moaning about the incredible difficulty of describing your 400-page manuscript in a single, pithy paragraph: I’ve got some good news. There are agencies out there who will give you a whole page to do it!

Does that deafening collective groan mean that you’re not grateful for triple or even quadruple the page space in which to describe your book? Is there no pleasing you people?

Okay, okay — so it may not be a piece o’ proverbial cake to introduce the premise, the protagonist, and the central conflict of the boo within a single page in standard format, but by this point in the series, I hope the prospect at least seems preferable to, say, confronting an angry cobra or trying to reason with pack of wolves. Constructing an eye-catching 1-page synopsis is more of a weeding-the-back-yard level of annoyance, really: a necessarily-but-tedious chore.

Seriously, successfully producing a 1-page synopsis is largely a matter of strategy, not creativity, and not even necessarily talent. As long as you don’t fall down the rabbit hole of one of the most common short synopsis-writing mistakes — trying to replicate each twist and turn of the plot/argument; generalizing so much that the book sounds generic; writing book jacket promotional copy rather than introducing the story — it’s simply a matter of telling Millicent what your book is ABOUT.

Preferably in a tone and at a vocabulary level at least vaguely reminiscent of the manuscript. Is that really so much — or so little, depending upon how you chose to look at it — to ask?

By contrast, the 5-page synopsis – which, until fairly recently, was far and away the most common requested length, as it still is for those already signed with agents and/or working with editors at publishing houses — should tell the STORY of your book (or state its argument) in as much vivid, eye-catching detail as you may reasonably cram into so few pages. Preferably by describing actual scenes, rather than simply summarizing general plot trends, in language that is both reflective of the manuscript’s and is enjoyable to read.

Why concentrate upon how you tell the story here, you ask, rather than merely cramming the entire plot onto a few scant pages? Why, to cause the agent, editor, or contest judge reading it exclaim spontaneously, “Wow — this sounds like one terrific book; this writer is a magnificent storyteller,” obviously.

Again, piece of cake to pull off in just a few pages, right?

Well, no, but don’t avert your eyes, please, if you are not yet at the querying stage — as with the author bio, I strongly recommend getting your synopsis ready well before you anticipate needing it. As I MAY have mentioned before, even if you do not intend to approach an agent whose website or agency guide listing asks for a synopsis to be tucked into your query packet, you will be substantially happier if you walk into any marketing situation with your synopsis already polished, all ready to send out to the first agent or editor who asks for it, rather than running around in a fearful dither after the request, trying to pull your submission packet together.

Even if you think that both of the reasons I have just given are, to put it politely, intended to help lesser mortals not anywhere near as talented than your good self, whatever you do, try not to save writing your synopsis for the very last moments before you stuff a submission or entry into an envelope. That route virtually guarantees uncaught mistakes, even for the most gifted of writers and savviest of self-promoters.

In fact, you take nothing else away from Synopsispalooza, please remember this: writing a synopsis well is hard, even for the most seasoned of pros; be sure to budget adequate time for it. Forcing yourself to do it at the last minute may allow you to meet the technical requirement, but it is not conducive to producing a synopsis that will do what you want it to do and sound like you want it to sound.

If the task feels overwhelming — which would certainly be understandable — remind yourself that even though it may feel as though you effectively need to reproduce the entire book in condensed format, you actually don’t. Even a comparatively long synopsis shouldn’t depict every twist and turn of the plot.

Yes, even if the agency or contest of your desires asks for an 8- or 10-page synopsis. Trust me, people who work with manuscripts for a living are fully aware that cutting down a 370-page book to the length of a standard college term paper is not only impossible, but undesirable. So don’t even try.

What should you aim for instead? Glad you asked: in a 3-8 page synopsis, just strive to give a solid feel of the mood of the book and a basic summary of the primary plot, rather than all of the subplots. Show where the major conflicts lie, introduce the main characters, interspersed with a few scenes described with a wealth of sensual detail, to make it more readable.

Sound vaguely familiar? It should; it’s an extension of our list of goals for the 1-page synopsis. Let’s revisit those, shall we?

(1) introduce the major characters and premise,

(2) demonstrate the primary conflict(s),

(3) show what’s at stake for the protagonist, and

(4) ideally, give some indication of the tone and voice of the book.

Now let’s add in the loftier additional goals of the slightly longer synopsis:

(5) show the primary story arc through BRIEF descriptions of the most important scenes. (For nonfiction that isn’t story-based, present the planks of the overarching argument in logical order, along with some indication of how you intend to prove each point.)

(6) show how the plot’s primary conflict is resolved or what the result of adopting the book’s argument would be.

I sense some squirming from the summary-resistant out there. “But Anne,” some of you protest, “am I missing something here? You’ve just told us not to try to summarize the entire book — yet what you’re suggesting here sounds a heck of a lot like sitting down and doing just that!”

Actually, I’m not doing any such thing, summary-resisters. The distinction lies in the details: I’m advising you to winnow the story down to its most essential elements, rather than trying to list everything that happens.

Yes, of course, there’s a difference. What an appallingly cynical thought.

If you’re having serious difficulty separating the essential from the merely really, really important or decorative in your storyline, you may be staring too closely at it. Try to think of your story as a reader would — if a prospective reader asked you what your book was about and you had only a couple of minutes to answer, what would you say?

And no, I’m not talking about that ubiquitous writerly response that begins with a gigantic sigh and includes a fifteen-minute digression on what scenes in the novel are based on real life. I’m talking about how you would describe it if you were trying to sound like a professional writer trying to get published — or, if it helps to think of it this way, like an agent describing a terrific new client’s work to an editor.

You wouldn’t waste the editor’s time rhapsodizing about the quality of the writing or what a major bestseller it was destined to be, would you? No, that would be a waste of energy: pretty much every agent thinks his own clients’ work is well-written and marketable. Instead, you would relate the story or argument in the terms most likely to appeal to readers who already buy similar books.

If you absolutely can’t get that account down to 5 minutes or so, try giving the 20-minute version to a good listener who hasn’t read a syllable of your manuscript, then asking her to tell the plot of the book back to you. The elements she remembers to include are probably — wait for it — the most memorable.

Or, if you don’t want to go out on a limb by recruiting others to help you, sit down all by your lonesome, picture your favorite English teacher standing over you, set the actual happenings of the novel aside for a moment, and write a brief summary of the book’s themes.

Oh, stop rolling your eyes; most authors are delighted to analyze their own books. Pretend that your book has just been assigned in a college English class — what would you expect the students to be able to say about it on the final?

No, the result will almost certainly not be a professional synopsis; this is an exercise intended to help you identify the bare bones of your storyline. It will also help you separate the plot or argument’s essentials from the secondary issues.

Why is that a necessary step? Well, lest we forget, a synopsis is a writing sample. It would hardly show off your scintillating literary voice or world-class storytelling acumen to provide Millicent with a simple laundry list of events, would it?

Please at least shake your head, if you cannot provide me with a ringing, “No, by jingo!” If you can’t even muster that, take a gander at how such a list might read:

SUZIE MILQUETOAST (34) arrives at work one day to find her desk occupied by a 300-pound gorilla (MR. BUBBLES, 10). She goes and asks her supervisor, VERLANDA MCFUNNYNAME (47) what is going on. Verlanda isn’t sure, but she calls Human Resources, to find out if Suzie has been replaced. She has not, but who is going to ask a 300-pound gorilla to give up his seat to a lady? Next, Verlanda asks her boss, JAMES SPADER (52), what to do, and he advises calling the local zoo to see if any primates might by any chance have escaped. Well, that seems like a good idea, but the zoo’s number seems to have been disconnected, so Suzie and Verlanda traipse to Highlander Park, only to discover…

Well, you get the picture: it reads as though the writer had no idea what to leave out. Not entirely coincidentally, it reads like a transcript of what most aspiring writers do when asked, “So what’s your book about?”

How does a seasoned author answer that question? As though she’s just been asked to give a pitch:

GORILLAS IN OUR MIDST is a humorous novel about how rumors get out of hand — and how power structures tend to cater to our fears, not our desires. It’s aimed at the 58 million office workers in the US, because who understands how frustrating it can be to get a bureaucracy to move than someone who actually works within one? See how this grabs you: Suzie Milquetoast arrives at work one day to find a 300-pound gorilla sitting at her desk. Is the zoo missing an inmate, or did HR make another hideously inappropriate hire?

A full synopsis? Of course not — but you have to admit, it’s a pretty good elevator pitch. It also wouldn’t be a bad centerpiece for a query letter, would it?

Which means, by the way, that it could easily be fleshed out with juicy, interesting, unique details lifted from the book itself. Add a couple of paragraphs’ worth, and you’ve got yourself a 1-page synopsis. Add more of the story arc, including the ending, toss in a few scene descriptions, stir, and voilà! You’ve got yourself a 3-page synopsis.

And how might you turn that into a recipe for a 5-page synopsis? Get a bigger bowl and add more ingredients, naturally.

But in order to select your ingredients effectively, you’re going to have to figure out what is essential to include and what merely optional. A few quiz questions, to get you started:

(a) Who is the protagonist, and why is s/he interesting? (You’d be astonished at how few novel synopses give any clear indication of the latter.)

To put it another way, what about this character in this situation is fresh? What about this story will a Millicent who screens submissions in this book category not have seen within the last week?

(b) What does my protagonist want more than anything else? What or who is standing in the way of her/his getting it?

(c) Why is getting it so important to her/him? What will happen if s/he doesn’t get it?

(d) How does the protagonist grow and change throughout pursuing this goal? What are the most important turning points in her/his development?

(e) How does the protagonist go about achieving this goal?

See? Piece of proverbial…hey, wait just a minute! Why, those questions sound a mite familiar, don’t they?

Again, they should: they’re the underlying issues of goals 1-3 and 5-6, above. If you answer them in roughly the same voice as the book, you will have met goal #4, as well — and, almost without noticing it, you will have the basic material for a dandy synopsis.

I told you: piece of cake.

Don’t, I implore you, make the extremely common mistake of leaving out point #6 — the one that specifies that you should include the story’s ending in the synopsis. Too many aspiring writers omit this in a misguided endeavor to goad Millicent and her ilk into a frenzy of wonder about what is going to happen next.

“But I want to make them want to read the book!” such strategists invariably claim. “I don’t want to give away the ending. Leaving the synopsis on a cliffhanger will make them ask to see it right away. Besides, how do I know that someone won’t steal my plot and write it as their own?”

To professional eyes, leaving out the ending is a rookie mistake, at least in a synopsis longer than a page. In fact, it’s frowned-upon enough that some Millicents have been known to reject projects on this basis alone.

Half of you who currently have synopses out circulating just went pale, didn’t you?

Perhaps I should have broken it to you a bit more gently. Here goes: from a professional point of view, part of the goal of an extended synopsis is to demonstrate to someone who presumably hasn’t sat down and read your entire book that you can in fact plot out an entire novel plausibly. Agents and editors regard it as the writer’s job to demonstrate this in an extended synopsis, not theirs to guess how the plot might conceivably come to a halt.

I hate to be the one to break it to you (at least before I’ve helped you all to a slice of cake), but a talented sentence-writer’s possessing the skills, finesse, and tenacity to follow a story to its logical conclusions is not a foregone conclusion. In practice, the assumption tends to run in the opposite direction: if the synopsis leaves out the how the plot resolves, Millicent and her cousin Maury (the editorial assistant at a major publishing house) will tend to leap to one of four conclusions, none of which are good for a submitter. They are left to surmise that:

a) the synopsis’ writer isn’t aware of the purpose of an extended synopsis, having confused it with back jacket copy, and thus is a fish that should be thrown back into the sea until it grows up a little.

In other words, next!

b) the synopsis’ author is a tireless self-promoter and/or inveterate tease, determined not to cough up the goods until there is actual money on the table. Since this is simply not how the publishing industry works, the fish analogy above may reasonably be applied here as well.

Again, next!

c) the synopsis’ author is one of the many, many writers exceptionally talented at coming up with stupendous premises, but less adept at fleshing them out. S/he evidently hopes to conceal this weakness from Millicent and Maury until after they have already fallen in love with the beauty of her/his prose and plotting in the early part of the book, in an attempt to cajole their respective bosses into editing the heck out of the novel before it could possibly be ready to market.

The wily fiend! Next!

d) or, less charitably, the synopsis’ author hasn’t yet written the ending, and thus is wasting their respective boss’ time by submitting an incomplete novel.

All together now: next!

Include some indication of how the plot resolves. Millicent, Maury, and their Aunt Mehitabel (the veteran contest judge) will thank you for it. They might even give you a piece of that delicious cake I keep mentioning.

Does that monumental gusty sigh I just heard out there in the ether mean that I have convinced you on that point? “All right, Anne,” synopsizers everywhere murmur with resignation, “I’ll give away the goods. But I have a lingering question about #4 on your list above, the one about writing the synopsis in roughly the same voice and in the same tone as the novel it summarizes. I get that a comic novel’s synopsis should contain a few chuckles; an ultra-serious one shouldn’t. A steamy romance’s synopsis should be at least a little bit sexy, a thriller’s a trifle scary, and so forth. But I keep getting so wrapped up in the necessity of swift summarization that my synopsis ends up sounding nothing like the book! How should I remedy this — by pretending I’m the protagonist and writing it from his point of view?”

Um, no. Nor should you even consider writing it in the first person, unless you happen to have written a memoir.

Nor is there any need to get obsessed with making sure the tone is absolutely identical to the book’s — in the same ballpark will do. You just want to show that you are familiar with the type of writing expected in the type of book you’ve written and can produce it consistently, even in a relatively dry document.

Piece of — oh, never mind.

There’s a practical reason for demonstrating this skill at the querying and submission stages: it’s a minor selling point for a new writer. Increasingly, authors are expected to promote their own books; it’s not at all uncommon these days for a publishing house to ask the author of a soon-to-be-released book to write a magazine or online article in the book’s voice, for promotional purposes, for instance. Or a blog, like yours truly.

Yes, I know; you want to concentrate on your writing, not its promotion. The muses love you for that impulse. But would you rather that I lied to you about the realities of being a working author?

I thought not. Let’s move on.

What you should also not do — but, alas, all too many aspiring writers attempt — is to replicate the voice of the book by lifting actual sentences from the novel itself, cramming them indiscriminately into the synopsis. I know that you want to show off your best writing, but trust me, you’re going to want to make up some new verbiage here.

Why, you ask? Hint: people who go into the manuscript-reading business tend to have pretty good memories.

Trust me, they recall what they’ve read. When I was teaching at a university, I was notorious for spotting verbiage lifted from papers I’d graded in previous terms; the fraternities that maintained A paper files actively told their members to avoid my classes.

Similarly, a really on-the-ball Millicent might recognize a sentence she read a year ago — and certainly one that she scanned ten minutes ago in a synopsis if it turns up on page 1 of the attached manuscript.

See the problem? No? What if I tell you that in a submission packet, the chapters containing the lifted verbiage and the synopsis are often read back-to-back?

Ditto with query packets. And good 30% of contest entries make this mistake, reproducing in the synopsis entire sentences or even entire paragraphs from the chapters included in the entry. Invariably, the practice ends up costing the entry originality points.

Do I see some raised hands from those of you who habitually recall what you’ve read? “But Anne,” some of you point out huffily, and who could blame you? “Didn’t you tell us just yesterday that it was a grave error to assume that Millicent, Maury , and/or Mehitabel will necessarily read both our synopses and the rest of our submissions?”

Excellent point, sharp-eyed readers: the operative word here is necessarily. While it’s never safe to assume that EVERYONE who reads your synopsis will also read your opening chapter, it’s also not a very good idea to assume that NO ONE will. Shooting for a happy medium — including enough overlap that someone who read only one of them could follow the plot without indulging in phrase redundancy — tends to work best here.

Should you be tempted to repeat yourself, I implore you to counter that impulse by asking this question with all possible speed: “Is there a vibrantly interesting detail that I could insert here instead?”

To over-writers, it may seem a trifle odd to suggest adding detail to a piece of writing as short as 5 pages, but actually, most synopses suffer from overgrowths of generalization and an insufficiency of specifics. So once you have a solid draft, read it over and ask yourself: is what I have here honestly a reader-friendly telling of my story or a convincing presentation of my argument (don’t worry, NF writers: I’ll deal with your concerns at length in a separate post), or is it merely a presentation of the premise of the book and a cursory overview of its major themes?

For most synopses, it is the latter.

Do I hear some questions amid the general wailing and gnashing of teeth out there? “But Anne,” a couple of voices cry from the wilderness, “How can I tell the difference between a necessary summary statement and a generalization?”

Again, excellent question. The short answer: it’s hard. Here’s a useful litmus test.

(1) Print up a hard copy of the synopsis, find yourself a highlighting pen, and mark every summary statement about character, every time you have wrapped up a scene or plot twist description with a sentence along the lines of and in the process, Sheila learns an important lesson about herself.

(2) Go back through and take a careful look at these highlighted lines.

(3) Ask yourself for each: would a briefly-described scene SHOW the conclusion stated there better than just TELLING the reader about it? Is there a telling character detail or an interesting plot nuance that might supplement these general statements, making them more interesting to read?

I heard that gasp of recognition out there — yes, campers, the all-pervasive directive to SHOW, DON’T TELL should be applied to synopses as well. Generally speaking, the fewer generalities you can use in a synopsis, the better.

I’ll let those of you into brevity for brevity’s sake in on a little secret: given a choice, specifics are almost always more interesting to a reader than vague generalities. Think about it from Millicent’s perspective — to someone who reads 100 synopses per week, wouldn’t general statements about lessons learned and hearts broken start to sound rather similar after awhile?

But a genuinely quirky detail in a particular synopsis — wouldn’t that stand out in your mind? And if that unique grabber appeared on page 1 of the synopsis, or even in the first couple of paragraphs, wouldn’t you pay more attention to the rest of the summary?

Uh-huh. So would Millicent.

It’s very easy to forget in the heat of pulling together a synopsis that agency screeners are readers, too, not just decision-makers. They like to be entertained, so the more entertaining you can make your synopsis, the more likely Millicent is to be wowed by it. So are Maury and Mehitabel.

Isn’t it fortunate that you’re a writer with the skills to pull that off?

If your synopsis has the opposite problem and runs long (like, I must admit, today’s post), you can also employ the method I described above, but with an editorial twist:

(1) Sit down and read your synopsis over with a highlighter gripped tightly in your warm little hand. On your first pass through, mark any sentence that does not deal with the primary plot or argument of the book.

(2) Go back through and read the UNMARKED sentences in sequence, ignoring the highlighted ones.

(3) Ask yourself honestly: does the shorter version give an accurate impression of the book?

(4) If so — take a deep breath here, please; some writers will find the rest of this question upsetting – do the marked sentences really need to be there at all?

If you’ve strenuously applied the steps above and your synopsis still runs too long, try this trick of the pros: minimize the amount of space you devote to the book’s premise and the actions that occur in Chapter 1.

Sounds wacky, I know, but the vast majority of synopses spend to long on it. Here’s a startling statistic: in the average novel synopsis, over a quarter of the text deals with premise and character introduction.

So why not be original and trim that part down to just a few sentences and moving on to the rest of the plot?

This is an especially good strategy if you’re constructing a synopsis to accompany requested pages or even unrequested pages that an agency’s website or agency guide listing says to tuck into your query packet, or contest entry. Think about it: if you’re sending Chapter 1 or the first 50 pages, and if you place the chapter BEFORE the synopsis in your submission or query packet (its usual location), the reader will already be familiar with both the initial premise AND the basic characters AND what occurs at the beginning in the book before stumbling upon the synopsis.

So I ask you: since space is at a premium on the synopsis page, how is it in your interest to be repetitious?

Allow me show you how this might play out in practice. Let’s continue this series’ tradition of pretending that you are Jane Austen, pitching SENSE AND SENSIBILITY to an agent at a conference. (Which I suspect would be a pretty tough sell in the current market, actually.) Let’s further assume that you gave a solid, professional pitch, and the agent is charmed by the story. (Because, no doubt, you were very clever indeed, and did enough solid research before you signed up for your agent appointment to have a pretty fair certainty that this particular agent is habitually charmed by this sort of story.) The agent asks to see a synopsis and the first 50 pages.

See? Advance research really does pay off, Jane.

Naturally, you dance home in a terrible rush to get those pages in the mail. As luck would have it, you already have a partially-written synopsis on your computer. (Our Jane’s very into 21st-century technology.) In it, the first 50 pages’ worth of action look something like this:

Now, all of this does in fact occur in the first 50 pages of SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, at least in my well-worn little paperback addition. However, all of the plot shown above would be in the materials the agent requested, right? Do you really need to spend 2 of your allotted 5 pages on this small a section of the plot, even if it is the set-up for what happens later on?

Of course not. Being a wise Aunt Jane, you would streamline this portion of your submission synopsis so it looked a bit more like this:

And then go on with the rest of the story, of course.

See what space-saving wonders may be wrought by cutting down on the premise-establishing facts? The second synopsis is less than half the length of the first, yet still shows enough detail to show the agent how the submitted 50 pp. feeds into the rest of the book. Well done, Jane!

While all of you novelists are hard at work, trying to perform a similar miracle upon your synopses, next time, I shall be tackling the specialized problems of the nonfiction synopsis. Yes, that’s right: we’re going to have our cake and eat it, too.

Don’t just ignore that 300-pound gorilla; work with him. And, of course, keep up the good work!

Countdown to a contest entry, part 8.6: you tell your side of the story, Hamlet; I’ll tell mine. Later, perhaps.

sarah-bernhardt_hamlet

Hello, campers —

My apologies to those of you who spent the afternoon and evening yesterday holding your breath, symbolically at least, in anticipation of my promised run-down on how to read, interpret, and follow contest entry rules. I honestly did mean to go into that last night — I’m all too aware that the postmark deadline for the William Faulkner/William Wisdom Literary Competition is this coming Tuesday — but health matters, alas, intervened. Long story. And if I have one rule I like to follow in life it’s not to give contest advice while on painkillers.

I’m still a bit groggy, so I’m going to cling to that excellent precept for at least a few hours longer. In the meantime, here is another of my favorite posts on how to write a 1-page synopsis. This one tackles the always-daunting challenge of trying to construct a synopsis for a multiple-perspective narrative.

Just in case anyone who might be thinking of entering a contest could use a few tips on the subject. Enjoy!

Still hanging in there, campers? I hope so, because we’ve been covering a whole lot of material in this expedited Synopsispalooza weekend: various lengths of novel synopsis on Saturday morning, an assortment of memoir synopses that evening, and this morning, different flavors of nonfiction synopsis. This evening, I had planned on blithely tossing off 1-, 3-, and 5-page versions of HAMLET told from multiple perspectives, as an aid to the many, many writers out there struggling with queries and submissions for multiple-protagonist novels — and then I noticed something disturbing.

As I often do when I’m about to revisit a topic, I went back and checked our last substantive Author! Author! discussion of diverse perspective choices. Upon scrolling through last April’s lively discussion of multiple-protagonist narratives (which began here, if you missed it), I realized that I had inadvertently left all of you perspective-switchers with a cliffhanger when I injured my back last spring: I devoted a post to writing a 1-page synopsis for a multiple-protagonist novel, fully intending — and, heaven help us, promising — that I would return to deal with 3- and 5-page synopses on the morrow.

You poor patient souls are still waiting, are you not? I’m so sorry — after my injury, I took a two-week hiatus from blogging, and I completely forgot about finishing the series. Then, to add insult to injury, I’ve been chattering about complex novel synopses under the misconception that those of you who followed last April’s discussion were already conversant with the basic strategy of synopsizing a multiple-protagonist novel.

Why on earth didn’t any of you patient waiters tell me that I had left you hanging? Who knows better than a writer juggling multiple perspectives that no single actor in a drama, however important, has access to the same sets of information that each other actor does?

No matter: I’m going to make it up to you perspective-jugglers, pronto. This post and the next will be entirely about writing a synopsis for a multiple-protagonist novel.

So that those new to the discussion will not have to play catch-up, this evening, with your permission, I would like to revisit the substance of that last post before I went silent, as it honestly does (in my humble opinion, at least) contain some awfully good guidelines for pulling off one of the more difficult tricks in the fiction synopsizer’s repertoire, boiling down a story told from several perspectives into a 1-page synopsis. To render this discussion more relevant to this weekend’s festivities, I shall be both updating it and pulling in examples from our favorite story, HAMLET.

You didn’t expect me to banish the melancholy fellow before the weekend was over, did you?

Let’s leap back into the wonderful world of the 1-page synopsis, then. I would not be going very far out on a limb, I suspect, in saying that virtually every working writer, whether aspiring or established — loathes having to construct synopses, and the tighter the length restriction, the more we hate ‘em. As a group, we just don’t like having to cram our complex plots into such short spaces, and who can blame us? Obviously, someone who believes 382 pages constituted the minimum necessary space to tell a story is not going to much enjoy reducing it to a single page.

Unfortunately, if one intends to be a published writer, particularly one who successfully places more than one manuscript with an agent or editor, there’s just no way around having to sit down and write a synopsis from time to time. The good news is that synopsis-writing is a learned skill, just as query-writing and pitching are. It’s going to be hard until you learn the ropes, but once you’ve been swinging around in the rigging for a while, you’re going to be able to shimmy up to the crow’s nest in no time.

Okay, so maybe that wasn’t the happiest metaphor in the world. But it is rather apt, as the bad news — you knew it was coming, right? — is that even those of us who can toss off a synopsis for an 800-page trilogy in an hour tend to turn pale at the prospect of penning a synopsis for a multiple-protagonist novel. It makes even the most harden synopsizer feel, well, treed.

Why? Well, our usual m.o. involves concentrating upon using the scant space to tell the protagonist’s (singular) story, establishing him as an interesting person in an interesting situation, pursuing interesting goals by overcoming interesting obstacles. Even if you happen to be dealing with a single protagonist, that prospect be quite daunting — but if you have chosen to juggle multiple protagonists, the mere thought of attempting to show each of their learning curves within a 1-page synopsis may well make you feel as if all of the air has been sucked out of your lungs.

Nice, deep breaths, everybody. It’s a tall order, but I assure you, it can be done. The synopsis-writing part, not just returning air to your lungs.

How? By clinging tenaciously to our general rule of thumb for querying a multiple-protagonist novel: the key lies in telling the story of the book, not of the individual protagonists.

Indeed, in a 1-page synopsis, you have no other option. So let’s spend the rest of this post talking about a few strategies for folding a multiple-protagonist novel into a 1-page synopsis. Not all of these will work for every storyline, but they will help you figure out what is and isn’t essential to include — and what will drive you completely insane if you insist upon presenting. Here goes.

1. Stick to the basics.
Let’s face it, a 1-page synopsis is only about three times the length of the average descriptive paragraph in a query letter. Basically, that gives you a paragraph to set up the premise, a paragraph to show how the conflict comes to a climax, and a paragraph to give some indication of how you’re going to resolve the plot.

Not a lot of room for character development, is it? The most you can hope to do in that space is tell the story with aplomb, cramming in enough unusual details to prompt Millicent the agency screener to murmur, “Hey, this story sounds fresh and potentially marketable — and my, is this ever unusually well-written for a single-page synopsis,” right?

To those of you who didn’t answer, “Right, by jingo!” right away: attempting to accomplish more in a single-page synopsis will drive you completely nuts. Reducing the plot to its most basic elements will not only save you a lot of headaches in coming up with a synopsis — it will usually yield more room to add individual flourishes than being more ambitious.

Admittedly, this is a tall order to pull off in a single page, even for a novel with a relatively simple plotline. For a manuscript where the fortunes of several at first seemingly unrelated characters cross and intertwine for hundreds of pages on end, it can seem at first impossible, unless you…

2. Tell the overall story of the book as a unified whole, rather than attempting to keep the various protagonists’ stories distinct.
This suggestion doesn’t come as a very great surprise, does it, at this late point in the weekend? Purely as a matter of space, the more protagonists featured in your manuscript, the more difficulty you may expect to have in cramming all of their stories into 20-odd lines of text. And from Millicent’s perspective, it isn’t really necessary: if her agency asks for a synopsis as short as a single page, it’s a safe bet that they’re not looking for a blow-by-blow of what happens to every major character.

Still not convinced? Okay, step into Millicent’s dainty slippers for a moment and consider which species of 1-page synopsis would be more likely to make her request the manuscript (or, in the case of a synopsis submitted with a partial, the rest of the manuscript). First, consider the common multiple-perspective strategy of turning the synopsis into a laundry list of what parts of the story are told from which characters’ perspectives:

Hamlet 1 p synopsis bad

Poor Will is so busy accounting for all of his narrative perspectives that he does not have room to present much of the plot, does he? This structural choice forces him to cover the same plot elements over and over again. Compare this to the same story told as a single storyline, a smooth, coherent narrative that gives Millicent a sense of the actual plot of the book:

1-page Hamlet

There really is no contest about which presents Shakespeare as the better novelist, is there? That’s no accident: remember, in a 1-page synopsis, the primary goal is not to produce a carbon-copy of the entire book, but to tell what the book is about in a manner that will prompt the reader to want to hear more.

So tell Millicent just that, as clearly as possible: show her what a good storyteller you are by regaling her with an entertaining story, rather than merely listing as many of the events in the book in the order they appear.

In other words: jettison the subplots. However intriguing and beautifully-written they may be, there’s just not room for them in the 1-page synopsis. Trust me, Millicent is not going to think the worse of your book for having to wait until she actually has the manuscript in her hand to find out every nuance of the plot — or, indeed, how many individual perspectives you have chosen to weave together into a beautifully rich and coherent whole.

That last paragraph stirred up as many fears as it calmed, didn’t it? “But Anne,” complexity-lovers everywhere cry out in anguish, “I wrote a complicated book because I feel it is an accurate reflection of the intricacies of real life. I realize that I must be brief in a 1-page synopsis, but I fear that if I stick purely to the basics, I will cut too much. How can I tell what is necessary to include and what is not?

Excellent question, complexity-huggers. The short answer is that in a 1-page synopsis, almost everything should be excluded except for the book’s central conflict, the primary characters involved with it, and what they have to gain or lose from it.

If you still fear that you have trimmed too much, try this classic editors’ trick: write up a basic overview of your storyline, then ask yourself: if a reader had no information about my book other than this synopsis, would the story make sense? Equally important, does the story sound like a good read?

Note, please, that I most emphatically did not suggest that you ask yourself whether the synopsis in your trembling hand was a particularly accurate representation of the narrative as it appears in the manuscript. Remember, what you’re going for here is a recognizable version of the story, not a substitute for reading your manuscript.

Which leads me to suggest…

3. Be open to the possibility that the best way to tell the story in your synopsis may not be the same way you’ve chosen to tell it in the manuscript.
Amazingly, rearranging the running order in the interests of story brevity is something that never even occurs to most struggling synopsizers to try. Yet in a multiple-perspective novel that skips around in time and space, as so many do, or one that contains many flashbacks, telling the overarching story simply and clearly may necessitate setting aside the novel’s actual order of events in favor of reverting to — gasp! — a straightforward chronological presentation of cause and effect.

Chronological order may not be your only option, however: consider organizing by theme, by a dominant plotline, or another structure that will enable you to present your complex story in an entertaining manner on a single page. Opting for clarity may well mean showing the story in logical order, rather than in the order the elements currently appear in the manuscript — yes, even if doing so necessitates leaping over those five chapters’ worth of subplot or ten of closely-observed character development.

Oh, stop hyperventilating. I’m not suggesting revising the book, just making your life easier while you’re trying to synopsize it. If you try to do too much here, you’ll only drive yourself into a Hamlet-like state of indecisive nuttiness: because no version can possibly be complete in this limited amount of space, no over-stuffed option will seem to be right.

For those of you still huffing indignantly into paper bags in a vain attempt to regularize your breathing again: believe me, #3 is in no way a commentary on the way you may have chosen to structure your novel — or, indeed, upon the complexity that tends to characterize the multiple-perspective novel. It’s a purely reflection of the fact that a 1-page synopsis is really, really short.

Besides, achieving clarity in a short piece and maintaining a reader’s interest over the course of several hundred pages can require different strategies. You can accept that, right?

I’m choosing to take that chorus of tearful sniffles for a yes. Let’s move on.

Storyline rearrangement is worth considering even if — brace yourselves; this is going to be an emotionally difficult one — the book itself relies upon not revealing certain facts in order to build suspense. Think about it strategically: if Millicent’s understanding what the story is about is dependent upon learning a piece of information that the reader currently doesn’t receive until page 258, what does a writer gain by not presenting that fact until the end of the synopsis — or not presenting it at all? Not suspense, usually.

And before any of you shoot your hands into the air, eager to assure me that you don’t want to give away your main plot twist in the synopsis, let me remind you that part of purpose of any fiction synopsis is to demonstrate that you can plot a book intriguingly, not just come up with a good premise. If that twist is integral to understanding the plot, it had better be in your synopsis.

But not necessarily in the same place it occupies in the manuscript’s running order. It may lacerate your heartstrings to the utmost to blurt out on line 3 of your synopsis the secret that Protagonist #5 doesn’t know until Chapter 27, but if Protagonists 1-4 know it from page 1, and Protagonists 6-13’s actions are purely motivated by that secret, it may well cut pages and pages of explanation from your synopsis to reveal it in the first paragraph of your 1-page synopsis.

Some of those sniffles have turned into shouts now, haven’t they? “But Anne, I don’t understand. You’ve said that I need to use even a synopsis as short as a single page to demonstrate my fine storytelling skills, but isn’t part of that virtuoso trick showing that I can handle suspense? If my current running order works to build suspense in the book, why should I bother to come up with another way to tell the story for the purposes of a synopsis that no one outside a few agencies and publishing houses will ever see?”

You needn’t bother, if you can manage to relate your storyline entertainingly in the order it appears in the book within a requested synopsis’ length restriction. If your 1-page synopsis effectively builds suspense, then alleviates it, heaven forfend that you should mess with it.

All I’m suggesting is that slavishly reflecting how suspense builds in a manuscript is often not the most effective way of making a story come across as suspenseful in a synopsis, especially a super-short one. Fidelity to running order in synopses is not rewarded, after all — it’s not as though Millicent is going to be screening your manuscript with the synopsis resting at her elbow, so she can check compulsively whether the latter reproduces every plot twist with absolute accuracy, just so she can try to trip you up.

In fact, meticulous cross-checking wouldn’t even serve her self-interest. Do you have any idea how much extra time that kind of comparison would add to her already-rushed screening day?

Instead of worrying about making the synopsis a shrunken replica of the book, concentrate upon making it a compelling road map. Try a couple of different running orders, then ask yourself about each: does this synopsis tell the plot of the book AS a story, building suspense and then relieving it? Do the events appear to follow logically upon one another? Is it clear where the climax falls? Or does it merely list plot events?

Or do those frown lines on your collective forehead indicate that you’re just worried about carving out more space to tell your story? That’s a perfectly reasonable concern. Let’s make a couple of easy cuts.

4. Don’t invest any of your scant page space in talking about narrative structure.
Again, this should sound familiar to those of you who have been following this Synopsispalooza. It’s not merely a waste of valuable sentences to include such English Lit class-type sentiments as the first protagonist is Evelyn, and her antagonist is Benjamin. Nor is it in your best interest to come right out and say, the theme of this book is…

Why? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: just as this kind of language would strike Millicent as odd in a query letter, industry types tend to react to this type of academic-speak as unprofessional in a synopsis.

Again you ask why? Veteran synopsis-writers, pull 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.

Don’t believe me? I’m not entirely surprised: convinced that the proliferation of narrators is the single most interesting and marketable aspect of the novel — not true, if the manuscript is well-written — most perspective-juggling aspiring writers believe, wrongly, that a narrator-by-narrator approach is the only reasonable way to organize a synopsis.

On the page, though, this seldom works well, especially in a 1-page synopsis. Compare the second example above with the following, a synopsis entirely devoted to analyzing the book as a critic might, rather than telling its story:

Hamlet 1 p synopsis bad 2

Not particularly effective at giving Millicent a sense of the overall plot, is it? Because the story is so complex and the individual characters’ perspectives so divergent, the seemingly simple task of setting out each in turn does not even result in an easily-comprehended description of the premise. Heck, the first three perspectives ran so long that our Will was forced to compress his fourth protagonist’s perspective into a partial sentence in the last paragraph.

Minimizing one or more narrators in an attempt to save space is a tactic Millicent and her aunt, Mehitabel the veteran literary contest judge, see all the time in synopses for multiple-protagonist novels, by the way. Protagonist-juggling writers frequently concentrate so hard on making the first-named protagonist bear the burden of the book’s primary premise that they just run out of room to deal with some of the others. In a synopsis that relies for its interest upon a diversity of perspectives, that’s a problem: as we saw above, an uneven presentation of points of view makes some look more important than others.

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 or end up crushing the last two or three into a single sentence at the bottom of the page, 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?”

Actually, you could, in a synopsis this short — which brings me back to another suggestion from earlier in this series:

5. Pick a protagonist and try presenting only that story arc in the 1-page synopsis.
This wouldn’t necessarily be my first choice for synopsizing a multiple-protagonist novel, but it’s just a defensible an option for a 1-page synopsis as for a descriptive paragraph or a pitch. As I pointed out above, the required format doesn’t always leave the humble synopsizer a whole lot of strategic wiggle room.

Concentrate on making it sound like a terrific story. You might even want to try writing a couple of versions, to see which protagonist’s storyline comes across as the best read.

Dishonest? Not at all — unless, of course, the character you ultimately select doesn’t appear in the first 50 pages of the book, or isn’t a major character at all. There’s no law, though, requiring that you give each protagonist equal time in the synopsis. In fact…

6. If you have more than two or three protagonists, don’t even try to introduce all of them in the 1-page synopsis.
Once again, this is a sensible response to an inescapable logistical problem: even if you spent a mere sentence on each of your nine protagonists, that might well up to half a page. And a half-page that looked more like a program for a play than a synopsis at that.

Remember, the goal here is brevity, not completeness, and the last thing you want to do is confuse our Millicent. Which is a very real possibility in a name-heavy synopsis, by the way: the more characters that appear on the page, the harder it will be for a swiftly-skimming pair of eyes to keep track of who is doing what to whom.

Even with all of those potential cuts, is compressing your narrative into a page still seeming like an impossible task? Don’t panic — there’s still one more wrench left in our writer’s tool belt.

7. Consider just making the 1-page synopsis a really strong, vivid introduction to the book’s premise and central conflict, rather than a vague summary of the entire plot.
Again, this wouldn’t be my first choice, even for a 1-page synopsis — I wouldn’t advise starting with this strategy before you’d tried a few of the others — but it is a recognized way of going about it. Not all of us will admit it, but many an agented writer has been known to toss together this kind of synopsis five minutes before a deadline. That’s a very good reason that we might elect to go this route: for the writer who has to throw together a very brief synopsis in a hurry, it’s undeniably quicker to write a pitch (which this style of synopsis is, yes?) than to take the time to make decisions about what is and is not essential to the plot.

Yes, yes, I know: I said quite distinctly farther up in this very post that the most fundamental difference between a descriptive paragraph and a synopsis is that the latter demonstrates the entire story arc. In a very complex plot, however, sketching out even the basic twists in a single page may result in flattening the story, rather than presenting it as a good read.

This can happen, incidentally, even if the synopsis is well-written. Compare, for instance, this limited-scope synopsis (which is neither for a genuinely multi-protagonist novel nor for HAMLET, but bear with me here; these are useful examples):

pride-and-prejudice-synop

with one that covers the plot in more detail:

P&P synop vague

See how easy it is to lose track of what’s going on in that flurry of names and events? (And see, while we’re at it, proof that it is indeed possible to hit the highlights of a complicated plot within a single page? Practice, my dears, practice.) Again, a pitch-style synopsis wouldn’t be my first choice, but for a 1-page synopsis, it is a respectable last-ditch option.

An overstuffed 1-page synopsis often falls prey to another storytelling problem — one that the last example exhibits in spades but the one just before it avoids completely. Did you catch it?

If you instantly leapt to your feet, shouting, “Yes, Anne, I did — the second synopsis presents Elizabeth primarily as being acted-upon, while the first shows her as the primary mover and shaker of the plot!” give yourself seventeen gold stars for the day. (Hey, it’s been a long post.) Over-crammed synopses frequently make protagonists come across as — gasp! — passive.

And we all know how Millicent feels about that, do we not? Can you imagine how easy it would be to present Hamlet’s story as if he never budged an inch on his own steam throughout the entire story?

Because the 1-page synopsis is so short, and multiple-protagonist novels tend to feature so many different actors, the line between the acting and the acted-upon can very easily blur. If there is not a single character who appears to be moving the plot along, the various protagonists can start to seem to be buffeted about by the plot, rather than being the engines that drive it.

How might a savvy submitter side-step that impression? Well, several of the suggestions above might help. As might our last for the day.

8. If your draft synopsis makes one of your protagonists come across as passive, consider minimizing or eliminating that character from the synopsis altogether.
This is a particularly good idea if that protagonist in question happens to be a less prominent one — and yes, most multiple-protagonists do contain some hierarchy. Let’s face it, even in an evenly-structured multi-player narrative, most writers will tend to favor some perspectives over others, or at any rate give certain characters more power to drive the plot.

When in doubt, focus on the protagonist(s) closest to the central conflicts of the book. Please don’t feel as if you’re slighting anyone you cut — many a character who is perfectly charming on the manuscript page, contributing a much-needed alternate perspective, turns out to be distracting in a brief synopsis.

Keep up the good work!

Countdown to a contest entry, part 8.4: to be or not to be — 1, 3, or 5 pages

olivier hamlet

Still hanging in there, campers? For those of you joining us late — which is to say, those of you who blinked for a minute or didn’t happen to have tuned in yesterday, when I changed my mind about how I was going to handle our series-in progress — I imagine you are a trifle stunned by how many posts on the mysteries and challenges of writing a 1-page synopsis I have managed to toss up here in a remarkably short time.

“What happened?” I hear the newcomers shouting. “There we were, working our way through a hasty yet thorough discussion on contest entry preparation — and all of a sudden, here are three posts on how to construct a 1-page synopsis! Ack, there’s a fourth! What fresh madness is this?”

Actually, it’s an ongoing madness. Since the postmark deadline for the writing contest I have been planning to use this very evening as a rule exemplar, the William Faulkner/William Wisdom Literary Competition is this coming Tuesday, and as part of its complicated charm lies in (a) its being one of the relatively few contests for previously-unpublished writers that accept book-length entries (yes, really), (b) it also has a Novel-in Progress category, (c) entering either category requires the construction of a 1-page synopsis, and I know from lengthy experience that (d) most aspiring writers would cheerfully opt for wrestling seven live alligators if it would get them out of writing a 1-page synopsis for a 350-page book, I though this might be a dandy time for a crash review of how to write one.

Don’t understand why writing a page of text might be a daunting challenge for someone who, after all, likes to write? Well, let me put it this way: see that gigantic second sentence in the last paragraph? That’s 129 words. A double-spaced 1-page synopsis runs about 400 words. And I wasn’t trying to describe a complex plot.

Those alligators are looking better now, aren’t they?

Last night’s three posts were about how to figure out what does and does not belong in a 1-page synopsis. Today’s extra posts — oh, you thought I wasn’t still going to post on contest rules and how to follow them this evening? How long have you known me? — will focus on the differences between a 1-page synopsis and its longer siblings. Should help those of you trying to pull that contest entry together figure out how to streamline your synopsis.

I have to say, I’m kind of tickled to have the excuse to re-run this post. It’s one of my all-time favorites — and, appropriately enough, it was written in the course of another blogging orgy.

Besides, its subject matter had also been on my mind this week, as I had been reading Nicole Galland’s terrific new retelling of OTHELLO, I, Iago. Could not put it down, as they say, until I finished it in the wee hours. And you know how closely I read text; it’s not easy to draw me that deeply into a story unless the writing is impeccable.

So I have a lot of Shakespeare rattling around in my brain at the moment. Ho there! Enjoy!

Welcome to this weekend’s expedited Synopsispalooza offerings. For those of you who missed yesterday evening’s teaser, I shall be posting twice per day this weekend (at roughly 10:30 am and 7:30 pm Pacific time) in order to cram as many practical examples of solid synopses of various lengths in front of my readers’ astonished eyes.

Why go to such great lengths? Well, perhaps I’m mistaken, but my bet is that most of you have never seen a professional synopsis before, other than the few fleeting glimpses I’ve given you throughout Synopsispalooza. So while I’ve given you formatting examples, a few 1-pagers, counterexamples, and a whole lot of guidelines, some of you may still be having difficulty picturing the target at which you are shooting.

Amazing how often that’s the case with the pieces of paper commonly tucked into a query or submission packet, isn’t it? The overwhelming majority of queriers have never seen a successful query; a hefty proportion of synopsizers have never clapped eyes upon a professionally-written synopsis; herds and herds of submitters have never been within half a mile of a manuscript in standard format, and a vast multitude of newly-signed writers have absolutely no idea even how to begin to organize an author bio on the page.

And some people wonder why I keep blogging on the basics. I’m not a big fan of guess what color I’m thinking submission standards.

Since my brief for this weekend is to generate a small library of practical examples, contrary to my usual practice, I’m not going to dissect each synopsis immediately after they appear. Instead, I’m going to leave them to you to analyze. In the comments, if you like, or in the privacy of your own head.

I can already feel some of you beginning to panic, but fear not — you already have the tools to analyze these yourself. We’ve just spent 13 posts going over what does and doesn’t work well in a synopsis, right? I’m confident that you are more than capable of figuring out why the various elements in these examples render them effective.

My goal here today is to give you a sense of the scope of storytelling appropriate to three commonly-requested lengths of synopsis. Because deny it as some of you might, I still harbor the sneaking suspicion that there are a whole lot of aspiring writers out there who are mistakenly trying to cram the level of detail appropriate to a 5-page synopsis into a 3- or 1-page synopsis.

That way lies madness, of the O, that this too too solid text would melt, thaw and resolve itself into a shorter synopsis! variety. Trust me, unless you actively long to be complaining that the Everlasting had not fix’d
His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter
, you don’t want to venture down that primrose path.

Besides, the ever-popular cram-it-all-in strategy isn’t likely to produce a successful shorter synopsis. As I’ve pointed out repeatedly throughout this series, the goal of a 1-page synopsis is not the same as a longer one. No one who requests a single-page synopsis seriously expects to see the entire plot summarized in it, as is routinely expected in a 5-page synopsis.

What might those different expectations yield on the synopsis page? Glad you asked; read on.

A quick caveat or two before you do: these are not intended to be the only possible synopses for this particular story; they’re quick-and-dirty stabs at it in a couple of hours while icing my knee. (I overdid this week; I’m reclining on pillows as I write this.) So kindly spare me quibbles about how I could have improved these or made them conform more closely to the text. I already know that once or twice, I presented some of the events out of chronological order, for ease of storytelling.

But guess what? If Millicent the agency screener asks to read your entire manuscript based upon your synopsis, she is not going to call you up to yell at you because they did not match up precisely. Nor will her boss, the agent of your dreams, or a contest judge. In fact, there is literally no point along the road to publication, except perhaps in a writing class, that anyone with the authority to yell at you is at all likely to perform a compare-and-contrast between your synopsis and your manuscript, checking for discrepancies.

Again, absolute literal accuracy is not expected in a synopsis; the pros are aware that plotlines will change slightly with subsequent revisions. What’s important here is presenting the story arc well — and that it comes across as a good story.

I am anticipating that many of you will know the story well enough to catch minor chronological rearrangement, by the way; this is a far more useful exercise if the story being presented is one with which you’re familiar. Besides, I wanted to stick with something in the public domain.

With those broad hints, and the assistance of that moody pick of Sir Larry above, most of you have probably tumbled to it already: you’re about to read several synopses of HAMLET.

Why HAMLET, and not, say, ROMEO AND JULIET, which is a bit better-known in this country? Partially, I chose it because in many ways, it’s the ultimate literary fiction storyline: it’s about a passive guy who sits around thinking about all of the negative things going on in his life and planning that someday he’ll do something about them.

Okay, so that’s a stereotype about literary fiction, but it’s a clich? for a reason. As any Millicent working in a LF-representing agency would happily tell you, far too many would-be LF writers mistakenly believe that the less that happens in a manuscript, the more literary it is.

That’s a misconception: what differentiates LF from other fiction is usually the vocabulary and sentence structure choices; LF assumes a college-educated readership (whereas most mainstream fiction is pitched at about a 10th-grade reading level), and often engages in experimental storytelling practices. Let’s face it, the kinds of sentences that Toni Morrison can make sing most emphatically would not work in other book categories. But I digress.

The other reason to choose HAMLET is that while most of you have probably seen it at least once, I’m betting that very few of you have ever seen it performed live in its entirety. Even the most text-hugging of theatre companies usually cuts an hour or so out of the play. (The major exception: Kenneth Branaugh’s film version does in fact contain every word. You’ll feel as though you’ve spent a month watching it, but there is a lovely Hamlet-Horatio scene that I’ve never seen performed in any other version.)

So I’m synopsizing a story that pretty much everybody has seen or heard synopsized, at least a little. That should prove helpful in understanding what I have chosen to include and exclude in each version.

To head off whining at the pass: yes, the lettering here is rather small and a bit fuzzy at the edges; that’s the nature of the format. To get a clearer view, try holding down the COMMAND key and hitting + repeatedly, to enlarge the image.

But before anybody out there gets the bright idea to steal any of this and turn it in as a term paper, this is copyrighted material, buddy. So you wouldn’t just be cheating; you’d be breaking the law.

So there. I didn’t go to all of this trouble so some con artist could avoid reading a classic. (Hey, I said that writing synopses was easy for a pro, not that it was even remotely enjoyable.)

Caveats completed; time to leap into the fray. Here, for your perusing pleasure, is a 5-page synopsis of The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark:

Hamlet 5 page 1

Hamlet-5-page-2

Hamlet-5-page-3

Hamlet-5-page-41

Hamlet-5-page-5

Pop quiz: I’ve deliberately made a really, really common mistake here, to show you all just how easy it is not to notice when tossing together a synopsis in a hurry. Did anyone catch it?

If you immediately raised your hand and shouted, “You misspelled Yorick’s name!” give yourself a gold star. You wouldn’t believe how often writers misspell the names of their own characters in synopses — or forget that between the time they originally wrote the synopsis for that contest that sounded so promising and when an agent asked for the first 50 pages and a 5-page synopsis, the protagonist’s best friend’s name had changed from Monica to Yvette, because Monica might strike a skimming reader as too similar to Mordred, the villain’s name.

And what’s the cure for that type of gaffe, everyone? Sing out loudly, please: read your synopsis IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD before you send it anywhere, anytime. And do it every single time you are asked to send it out; things change.

The 5-page synopsis was the industry standard for many years, and probably still the one you will be asked to produce after you have signed with an agent. In these decadent days of wildly different submission guidelines across agencies and contests, however, aspiring writers are asked to produce something shorter.

As I believe I have mentioned about 1700 times on the blog at this point, read the guidelines several times over before you submit or enter so much as a syllable. If the requester doesn’t specify how long the synopsis should be, then the length is up to you.

Just keep it under 5 pages. Longer than that, and you’ll just look as though you don’t have any idea how long it should be. If you go less than 5, fill the pages in their entirety (or close to it), so the length will seem intentional.

Tell the entire story in a 3- or 4-page synopsis. If you already have a 5-page version handy, you can often get there by simply lightening the level of detail. Like so:

Hamlet-3-page-1

Hamlet 3 page 2

Hamlet 3 page 3

For a 1- or 2-page synopsis, the goal is different. While it is perfectly acceptable to depict the entire story arc, introducing the major characters, central conflict, and what’s at stake will do very nicely.

Which is to say: don’t even try to cut down a 5-page synopsis into a 1-page; it will only irritate you to the hair-yanking stage. Instead, start fresh:

1-page Hamlet

As you may see, I actually have covered the entire plot here, if a bit lightly. I’ve introduced the major characters and their main conflicts — and no more. I didn’t waste a paragraph describing the castle; I didn’t feel compelled to show what the characters looked like; I avoided incorporating clich?s about procrastination. Yet I’ve demonstrated that this story is interesting and holds together.

In other words, I did the writer’s job: I wrote a 1-page overview of the plot. Ta da!

Or rather, I wrote a 1-page synopsis geared toward convincing a literary or mainstream fiction-representing agent to ask to see the manuscript. If I were trying to market HAMLET as, say, a paranormal thriller, I would present it differently.

How differently, you ask? Take a gander. Just to keep things interesting, this time, I’ll do it as a 2-page synopsis:

Hamlet ghost page 1

Hamlet ghost page 2

Reads like quite a different story, does it not? Yet all that was required to pull that off was a slight tone shift, a tighter focus on the grislier aspects of the story, and an increased emphasis on the ghost’s role in the plot, and voil? ! Paranormal thriller!

That was rather fun, actually. Want to see the same story as a YA paranormal? Here you go:

YA Hamlet page 1

YA Hamlet page 2

The moral, should you care to know it: although most first-time novelists feel utterly controlled by the length restrictions of a requested synopsis, ultimately, the writer is the one who decides how to present the story. Only you get to choose what elements to include, the tone in which you describe them, and the phrasing that lets Millicent know what kind of book this is.

Makes you feel a bit more powerful, doesn’t it?

Tune in this evening for more empowering examples. Enjoy the control, campers, and keep up the good work!

Countdown to a contest entry, part 8.5: just what went on in that castle, anyway? Inquiring minds want to know.

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Didn’t expect me back so soon, did you, campers? Here’s this morning’s second installment in our ongoing trilogy of concrete examples of 1-page synopses. In this version, we’re talking about different stripes of nonfiction. Enjoy!

So far in this weekend’s expedited Synopsispalooza series — or, as they’ve been calling it chez Mini, “your insanely time-consuming weekend of synopsis examples” — we have taken a gander at 1-, 2-, 3-, and 5-page synopses for a novel and 1-, 3-, and 5-page synopses for a memoir. This morning, as promised, I shall be showing you several different versions — and different types of platform — for a nonfiction book. Or rather, to keep the examples interesting, for several different kinds of nonfiction book.

Why mix it up more this time than in the previous posts? Well, there are quite a few kinds of nonfiction book: what might work beautifully in a synopsis for, say, a journal’s account of a sensational murder case might not present a historical analysis of the same case nearly as well.

Don’t believe me? Okay, let’s return to our by-now-familiar example and compare how a synopsis for a true crime version of Hamlet by a writer with a journalistic background would differ from how a historian would present his case for a book on the Elsinore murders. Beginning with the journalist:

Hamlet true crime synopsis

Ace journalist Walter Winchell certainly makes the his take on the well-worn Hamlet story sound like a grabber, doesn’t he? A fresh take on a demonstrably popular subject is always popular with Millicent the agency screener. Wisely, Mssr. Winchell also makes it quite plain what kind of evidence he has to offer in support of his challenge to the prevailing wisdom on the subject.

But you don’t need to take my word for this being a winning synopsis. We’ve already established criteria for success in a nonfiction synopsis of any length, right? To recap, a nonfiction synopsis that’s not for a memoir should:

(1) present the problem or question the book will address in a way that makes it seem fascinating even to those not intimately familiar with the subject matter;

(2) demonstrate why readers should care enough about the problem or question to want to read about it;

(3) mention who specifically is already interested in this problem or question, to demonstrate already-existing public interest in the subject, if applicable;

(4) give some indication of how the writer intends to prove the case, showing the argument in some detail;

(5) demonstrate why the book will appeal to a large enough market niche to make publishing it worthwhile, and

(6) show beyond any reasonable question that you are the best-qualified person in the universe to write the book.

Actually, those are the goals of a longer synopsis — say, 3-5 pages — but Mssr. Winchell has managed to hit most of these points in a single page. (Well done, Walt!) Fringe benefit: since he has embraced our earlier premise that a good nonfiction synopsis is a miniaturized book proposal, all he would need to do in order to lengthen this 1-page wonder into a longer synopsis, should he need one, would be to add more specifics and beef up his credentials as the obvious person to break this exciting story.

Let’s take a peek at a synopsis for straightforward historical account of the famous murders. To make the task a trifle more challenging, let’s remove the conceit of present-day headline value.

Hamlet as history synopsis

Doesn’t sound as though it has nearly as large a target audience as the first version, does it? That’s not necessarily a drawback in a nonfiction synopsis, by the way: in this case, it’s simply an accurate reflection of the book’s probable appeal. The Mad Prince of Denmark is not, after all, likely to be a natural for Oprah.

Appropriately, then, everything in this synopsis is geared to the readers most likely to be interested in this book: the academic tone, the intensive level of proof in the argument, the largely theoretical stakes all proclaim a college-educated audience. Yes, college-educated readers interested in tracing the historical and literary background of centuries-old plays is a niche market, but as any Millicent working at a history-representing agency would be aware, it’s a readership that buys a heck of a lot of books. No reason for Herodotus to risk compromising his credibility, then, by claiming the potential audience implied in — wait for it — “It’s a natural for Oprah!”

I bring this up advisedly: all too frequently, nonfiction writers turn Millicent off by pretending (or even just implying) on the query or synopsis page that their target audiences are much, much larger than they actually are. This is a strategic mistake, one that’s likely to get a synopsis rejected on sight.

Seriously, agents who habitually sell manuscripts in your book category have a very clear sense of how big the general audience for that type of book is. While including demographic statistics for the specific target market for the specific subject matter of your tome is a good idea — as we discussed earlier in this series, Millicent may not be aware of just how many drive-in movie enthusiasts are out there; if your book happens to be about drive-in theatres, you might want to mention the size of the Drive-in Fan Club — exaggerated general claims are extremely unlikely to convince a professional reader that your book is marketable.

So kudos to Herodotus for being savvy enough not to claim that every English teacher in America will rush to buy this book!. Instead, he stuck with the much more believable assertion that pretty much anyone who stumbled upon his volume in a bookstore would be at least vaguely familiar with the story of HAMLET.

Hmm, where have I heard that supposition before?

Yes, readers who have had their hands in the air since the top of the second example? “But Anne,” the sharp-eyed point out, “the formatting of the title is different for these two synopses. In the first, the subtitle has its own dedicated double-spaced line, but in the second, both title and subtitle are on the first line of the page. What gives?”

Well caught, patient hand-raisers. Either version is correct in a nonfiction synopsis. Generally speaking, longer subtitles tend to have their own lines, but unless either the title or subtitle is so long that it would be impossible to contain both on a single line, the choice is up to the writer.

Refreshing for something to be, isn’t it?

Oh, and you know how I keep urging all of you to read every syllable of your synopses IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD, rather than merely relying upon your word processing program’s spell- and grammar-checker, and to double-check that all proper names are spelled correctly? That last example provides an excellent reason to follow this advice religiously: because I was tired, I didn’t notice until after I posted the original version of this synopsis that Word’s spellchecker had changed Gesta Danorum to — I kid you not — Gestapo Decorum.

Which, while it would be a great title for a history about manners during the Second World War, was not what I meant. Thank goodness I did a dramatic reading of all of today’s examples at the brunch table, eh?

Just for fun, let’s take a peek at how a psychologist might synopsize the same basic story. Note how cleverly Dr. Welby works in his credentials.

Hamlet self-help synopsis

It’s fascinating how different these three takes on the same story are, isn’t it? From Millicent’s perspective, although they all draw on the same source material, each makes a beeline for its own book category.

And that’s how it should be. Signing off for now…

Still more hands just shot into the air, didn’t they? “But Anne,” those of you who believe that I don’t have anything else to do this weekend point out, “for both the novel and memoir synopses, you showed not just a 1-page version, but 3- and 5-page renditions as well. So where are the extensions of these, huh? Huh?”

Well, first, you might want to do something about that aggression you have going there; perhaps Dr. Welby’s self-help book could offer a few suggestions. I’m aware that there’s a common Internet-based assumption that every answer to any given searcher’s question should be instantly available on a single webpage — or, in this case, a single blog post — but as is so often the case, complex reality isn’t easily compressible into just a few hundred words.

That’s particularly true in this case — and for reasons that should be apparent to anyone in the throes of constructing a book proposal. While, as I mentioned above, expanding any of these 1-page synopses could be achieved by the simple expedients of beefing up the writer’s platform, adding statistics to back up claims about the target readership and the book’s importance to that readership (although Dr. Welby has already done an excellent job of demonstrating both), and telling more of Hamlet’s story as it relates to their respective arguments, my blowing up the first two of these useful text-bolsterers in order to fill the larger space allotment would involve my just making up background for the authors.

Fictional platform does not carry much example value, in my experience. Nor do made-up statistics, although since I did some actual research to construct the examples above, much of the content of the second and third examples is true. (Don’t quote it in your term papers, though, children: do your own archive-diving.) So while it would be amusing to expand these three examples — especially the first — the exercise probably would not help all of you nonfiction synopsis-writers a great deal. Sorry about that, truth-tellers.

In this evening’s post, I shall be tackling the ever-burning issue of how to write a synopsis for a multiple-protagonist novel. Keep up the good work!

Countdown to a contest entry, part VIII: embracing the offbeat strategy

Hey, I’ve got some great news for all of you penny-pinchers — and who doesn’t make a penny scream occasionally these days? FAAB Dave McChesney reports that Outskirts Press is currently offering a 10% discount on his new release, Beyond the Ocean’s Edge if you buy it directly from the publisher’s site. If you can stop tormenting those coins for a moment, you’ll find the blurb for this exciting adventure story in this earlier post. Thanks for letting us know, Dave!

Back to business. I feel a trifle guilty about not posting yesterday, I must admit. Oh, I had pretty good reasons — the pollen count was through the roof, or rather through my studio’s window. The lilac tree has evidently hit its adolescent growth spurt, and like all developing things that bid fair to be fascinating adults, it’s asserting its independence by breaking away from the bonds I have set for it and is getting in my face. I’ll spare you a description of the resultant sneezing.

The postmark deadline for the writing contest I have been planning to use as a rule exemplar, the William Faulkner/William Wisdom Literary Competition is this coming Tuesday, however, so I regret the loss of time. I have time to go over the rules and how to follow them, as well as answer any contest prep questions you might care to post this weekend, of course, so no need to panic. However, while I was sneezing my pretty little head off, I came up with a glorious plan to make the lost Thursday up to you.

Since the contest requires a 1-page synopsis to accompany book-length entries, and since most aspiring writers would, in my extensive and sympathetic experience, rather waltz with a live rattlesnake than sit down and write a 1-page synopsis, am I correct in assuming that more than a few of you planning to enter the contest have been putting it off until this weekend? Am I further correct in assuming that it would save you some time if you didn’t have to dig through my extensive archives for pointers on how to write one from scratch? And would I be crawling too far onto that interpretive limb if I presumed that it would save you a little time and more than a little chagrin if I abruptly presented you with the relevant how-to posts?

I’ll take those vague nods, exasperated sighs, and chorus of sneezes as yes, yes, and no. So I’ll tell you what I’m going to do: because I love you people and would like to be shaking several of your respective hands at the awards ceremony, I shall be reposting my ever-popular series on how to write a 1-page synopsis successfully, if hurriedly.

Tonight. All of it. Back-to-back, so you have it at your itchy fingertips.

You’re welcome. It will take a while to post them all, but if you tune in sometime after 8 p.m. Pacific time, I believe I can promise you enough to read to keep you busy.

To prepare you to turn that practical gift to its best advantage for you, right now, I’m going to polish off my observations on the touches that differentiate a successful contest synopsis from one that you might tuck with confidence into a query or submission packet.

Since most writing contests that offer prizes to unpublished books do not accept entire manuscripts — although the Faulkner/Wisdom competition does, one of the many things I like about it; I also like that it features an unusual Novel-in-Progress category, as well as a special prize for a short story by a high school student — judge that book by the first chapter (or some portion thereof) and a synopsis, the synopsis is quite a bit more important to an entry’s chances of making the finalist round than most entrants assume. Effectively, the contest synopsis is the substitute for the rest of the book.

Oh, you hadn’t been thinking of it that way? It’s only sensible: that page (or 3 or 5, depending upon the individual contest’s rules) is where you demonstrate to judges that you are not merely a writer who can hold a reader in thrall for a few isolated pages. The synopsis is where you show that you have the vision, tenacity, and — feel free to sing along; you should know the words by 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.

Or, if you happen to be entering a memoir, that you can tell your life story so compellingly and honestly, while simultaneously presenting it with a dramatically-satisfying story arc, that a reader will indeed feel as though s/he has walked the proverbial mile in your moccasins, and returned from the journey edified, enlightened, and entertained.

Or, should your tastes run toward other stripes of nonfiction, that you can articulate an important problem or unresolved question, illuminate the relevant circumstances, and offer a solution or interpretation so subtle and complex that Cicero himself would stand up and applaud. Nothing dry or mundane about the story you’re telling.

Sounds noble expressed in those terms, doesn’t it? Actually, it is: the synopsis is where you show that you have the writerly chops to 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 or argument of the book, regardless of whether you are submitting fiction or nonfiction. And although it pains me to tell you this, it’s exceedingly rare that a synopsis included with an entry even attempts that not-particularly-difficult feat.

Did I just notice many, many eyebrows shooting hairline-ward? “But Anne,” those of you about to pop your entries into the nearest mailboxes shout, “isn’t it self-evident where that chapter or excerpt falls? Why would I be submitting anything other than the first chapter(s) of my book to a literary contest that judges book-length work?”

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. And surprisingly often, rules do not insist explicitly that the entered pages fall consecutively in the book.

So ostensibly, it’s can appear to be up to the writer to decide which pages are most likely to wow Mehitabel, the veteran contest judge. Who — spoiler alert — may not have read the contest rules recently enough to recall that entering anything but the opening of the book is technically acceptable.

Well might you clutch your throat and mutter inarticulately. “What was this entrant thinking?” Mehitabel wonders, leafing through the four-page excerpt from Chapter 8, the six-page passage from Chapter 10, and the totality of Chapter 18 that make up the 25-page contest entry before her. “This reads like random notes for a planned book, not a legitimate taste of a book already written. No agent would accept this as a submission; why on earth would this writer think we accept it as a contest entry?”

In all likelihood, because the rules allowed for the possibility, even if they did not encourage it. You’d be astonished at how often contest entrants will take advantage of what they perceive to be a loophole operating in their favor, only to find that they have inadvertently violated the judges’ expectations.

Here comes the first iteration of an axiom you are going to be seeing many, many times over the next few days: read contest rules carefully. All too often, entrants merely glance at them and assume that they understand what’s expected. And then those entrants get disqualified.

Let’s say for the sake of argument, though, that feel that your best writing falls in, say, Chapter 16, not in Chapter 1. Like a sensible person, before you printed out Chapter 16 and pop it into the entry envelope, you have read through a contest’s rules with great care. You borrowed your spouse’s fine-toothed comb to go over them again, in case you missed something. Then you had your spouse, your neighbor, and your son Joey’s third-grade teacher peruse those rules, so you could compare notes.

In caucus, all of you agree that the rules do seem to allow entering an excerpt from the middle of the book. And the contest deadline is Monday, so you don’t have time to e-mail the contest’s organizers to double-check that this is indeed an acceptable option. Even if you did have time and they wrote back with their blessing, however, if you elect to pursuit this strategy, 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 chapters other than the initial ones or non-consecutive excerpts from a book, even if later chapters contain writing that is truly wonderful. Why? Well, presumably, you chose to begin your manuscript at a certain point in the story for a reason; asking Mehitabel to jump into it somewhere else might well require her to know information that the chapter you submit does not contain. If a reader would normally know by page 5 that angel-faced Georgette is a murderous maniac in cheerleader’s clothing, and Mehitabel reads only pp. 57-82, she may well be confused when Georgie slashes up that nice math teacher on page 76.

Non-consecutive excerpts are even more likely to confuse. They 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, the pages upon which Millicent the agency screener would naturally base her opinion if you submitted the manuscript to an agency.

Did some of you just do a double-take? 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? And in any case, that’s why God invented ghostwriters.

Since reputable contest judging is blind, that last scenario is unlikely to arise, anyway. So a judge might safely conclude that the entrant who mailed in this patchwork document 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, but I can already hear some of you quietly tucking page 147 into your entry packet. Fine. If you have decided, over my strenuous objections, to use non-contiguous excerpts, here is some advice on how to do it in the manner least likely to annoy Mehitabel.

First, place your synopsis at the top of your entry packet, before the manuscript pages, unless the rules absolutely forbid you to do so. That way, you will maximize the probability that the judge will read it first. Second, make sure that the synopsis makes it pellucidly clear that these excerpts are far and away the most important parts of the book for some reason other than the beauty of the writing.

Oh, you may giggle, but by embracing the offbeat strategy, you’ve added another responsibility to the synopsis’ usual task of showing the overall story arc or argument 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 would you want to raise an already lofty bar this much 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. If you must, however, you should again position your synopsis on the top of the pile, and that synopsis should present the chapter you are including as the climax of the book.

Yes, even if it isn’t. I can only assume that you have your reasons for wanting to stick Chapter 17, rather than Chapter 1, under Mehitabel’s bloodshot eyes; since that is the case, surely you can make a convincing argument that it’s the correct choice, despite the significant disadvantage any judge will face in figuring out what happened in Chs. 1-16.

“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 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, just because she might — silly person — want to know what anyone else who read that far in the book would already know?”

Before I answer that directly, let me acquaint you with some of the more salient’ arguments against beginning your entry at any point other than the beginning of the book. 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 is that the judge and the everyday reader will have an equal amount of information going in. 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.

Oh, please don’t look so sad. There is a sneaky way to get around this problem –- but I’m afraid I would have to scold you if you did it.

So while you did not, of course, hear it from me, 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 nonfiction books that go into subsequent editions, sometimes not even then.

Thus, in theory, a clever entrant who feels her best writing occurs fifty pages into her novel might, for the purposes of competition alone, place her strongest scene first by starting the entry on page 50. Labeling it as page 1, of course, precisely as if the crafty soul’s book actually did begin there.

To put it in a less clever way: go ahead and submit your strongest chapter, tricky one — 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.

“Is there a problem, officer?” this shifty-eyed writer could then say, batting large, innocent eyes. “I just don’t like linear narratives, that’s all. I simply wanted to open with a prologue from later in the story, then leap back to Chapter 1.”

The synopsis would have to be revised, naturally, to make it appear that this was indeed the usual running order of the book. Then, too our heroine would have to edit the submitted pages 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. Or it would be, if I knew about it.

Which I don’t. Look, isn’t that Superman flying by the window?

Are those eyebrows creeping skyward again? “But Anne,” some of you tireless running order-huggers maintain, “my story doesn’t make sense told out of order, but I don’t feel that the book’s opening shows off my writing skills more effectively than a section later in the book. Does that mean I 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. Don’t underestimate the competitive value of not boring them; a staggeringly high percentage of manuscripts start pretty slowly.

You can and should take advantage of that fact, you know. 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 quickly, 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 advise placing the synopsis AFTER the chapters in the stack of papers or e-mailed document, 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.

Why, yes, that is a different running order than I advised for the tricky. How observant of you.

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. You’re going to want to make absolutely sure that the synopsis you submit supports the image of the book you want your submitted chapter to send.

Okay, so I’ll admit that’s kind of strange advice, coming from someone planning to provide a crash course in one-page synopsis-writing this very evening, with an eye to contest entries going out on Monday. I can only provide guidance; I cannot bend the space-time continuum to my will. And heaven knows I’ve tried.

Tomorrow, 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!

Countdown to a contest entry, part 8.3: is this the part where I get to stomp on Tokyo?

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Hello again, campers: welcome to my fourth — yes, really — post of the day, and my third in this sub-series on how to write a 1-page synopsis in a tearing hurry. If, for instance, one wanted to enter a contest with a deadline this coming Tuesday.

I have a few more posts on the subject that I would like to share with you, but I suspect we’re starting to reach the point where if I give you any more to read tonight, it will all be blurred together in your mind by morning. So I am going to sign off for the evening after this post. Tomorrow, I shall plunge us back into boot camp again — and, if you’re very nice, talk a bit about how contest rules work and how to follow them.

It’s an action-packed weekend here at Author! Author! See you on the morrow!

Fair warning, campers: I’m in a foul mood today. I’ve answered the phone for eight telemarketers so far this evening, seven of whom refused to believe that I have not been secretly operating the A+ Mini-Mart out of my home. My physical therapists’ office forgot that I had an appointment today, so I got dressed up in my silly gym clothes for nothing. A client’s deadline just got moved up by a couple of months, meaning that his manuscript was due, oh, yesterday.

All of that I could take with equanimity. What really got my proverbial goat were the two — count ‘em, two — aspiring writers who chose today to appear out of the blue and demand that I drop everything to pay attention to them, despite the fact that neither knows me well enough to be asking for a favor, let alone demanding it, and did so in the rudest manner imaginable. Not only that, but each was so self-absorbed that s/he actually became angry with me for setting limits on how much of my time I would allow them to co-opt.

I was really very nice about it, honest. But both evidently chose to believe that because they had faith in their talent, I owed them my professional attention. One even sent me a document, presumably for me to edit out of the goodness of my heart.

Because, obviously, I could not possibly have anything else to do. I could get back to stomping on Tokyo later.

I wish I could say that this kind of thing does not happen to those of us who are kind enough to give the occasional free advice to the aspiring, but truth compels me to say otherwise. In fact, this attitude is so pervasive that quite a few pros simply avoid giving any advice to up-and-comers at all.

{Present-day Anne interrupting here: there was quite an amusing but for our purposes rather too in-depth discussion about how difficult it can be to attract a pro’s attention at a conference. Since I’m trying to keep us focused on the task at hand, I’ve omitted it. Pity, really, but we’re on a schedule here.}

Any buildings still standing, or have I smashed them all with my giant lizard feet?

Okay, I feel better now. Time to get back to doing today’s single professional favor for masses and masses of writers I have never met. After that, I’m off the charitable clock.

For the last couple of posts, I’ve been showing you examples of good and not-so-good 1-page synopses, so we could talk about (okay, so I could conduct a monologue about) the overarching strategies that rendered them more or less effective. Since the response so far has been no more traumatized than one might expect from writers faced with the prospect of constructing a 1-page synopsis for a 400-page novel of a complexity that would make Tolstoy weep, I’m going to assume that we’re all pretty comfortable with the basic goals and strategy of a 1-page synopsis intended for tucking into a query envelope or to copy and paste at the bottom of an e-mailed query.

Before I move on to the ins and outs of writing the longer synopsis, I feel I should respond to some of the whimpers of confusion I’ve been sensing coming from some of my more structurally-minded readers. “Hey, Anne,” some of you have been thinking quite loudly, “I appreciate that you’ve been showing us visual examples of properly-formatted synopses — a sort of SYNOPSES ILLUSTRATED, if you will — but I’m still not positive that I’m doing it right. If I clutch my rabbit’s foot and wish hard enough, is there any chance that you might go over the various rather odd-looking formatting choices you’ve used in them before, say, I need to send out the 1-page synopsis currently wavering on my computer screen? Please? Pretty please? With sugar on top?”

Who am I to resist the charms of a well-stroked rabbit’s foot — especially when the request accompanying it is expressed so politely? Let’s take another gander at the good 1-page synopsis for PRIDE AND PREJUDICE:

For veterans of my extended forays into the joys and terrors of standard format for manuscripts, none of the formatting here is too surprising, right? Printed out, this 1-page synopsis strongly resembles a properly-constructed manuscript page — and with good reason.

For the most part, standard format for a synopsis is the same as for a page of manuscript: double-spaced, 1-inch margins all around, indented paragraphs (ALWAYS), doubled dashes, numbers under 100 written out in full, slug line, 12-point Times, Times New Roman, or Courier, the works. (If you’re unfamiliar with the rules of standard format, you will find them conveniently summarized under the HOW TO FORMAT A BOOK MANUSCRIPT category on the list at right.)

What it should NOT look like, but all too many query packet synopses do, is this:

P&P synopsis no indent

Why might our Millicent instantly take umbrage at this alternate formatting? Chant it with me, long-time readers of this blog: the only time business formatting (i.e., non-indented paragraphs) is acceptable is in business letters (but not query letters or personal correspondence) or e-mails. Because folks in the industry are aware of that, there is a well-established publishing tradition of regarding block formatting as the structural choice of the illiterate.

So the disturbingly common practice of submitting a block-formatted synopsis (“Well, it’s not a manuscript page, so why should it be formatted like one?”) or query letter (“It’s a business letter, isn’t it? I’m trying to break into the book-writing business.”) is — how shall put this delicately? — a really bad idea. Remember, everything in a query or submission packet is a writing sample. Format the constituent parts so they will convince Millicent of your deep and abiding commitment to excellence in the written word.

As in manuscript, the author’s contact information does not appear on the first page of the synopsis. Unlike the first page of a manuscript, however, the title of the book should appear on the first page of a synopsis, along with the information that it IS a synopsis.

Hey, Millicent has a lot of pieces of paper littering her desk. Do you really want yours to go astray — or be mistaken for a page of your manuscript?

Worried about what might happen to all of that formatting if you e-mail your 1-page synopsis? Relax: if it’s a requested synopsis, you’ll be sending it as a Word attachment, anyway.

If the synopsis will be accompanying an e-mailed query, you’re still going to want to write it initially in Word. As with manuscript pages, if you format your synopsis like this in Word, copy it, and paste it into the body of an e-mail (as many agencies’ querying guidelines now request), much of the formatting will remain intact: indented and double-spaced. Easy as the proverbial pie. Of course, the slug line — the author’s last name/title/page # that should appear in the header of every page of your writing you intend to submit to professional readers — won’t appear in the e-mailed version, nor will the margins, but you can live with that, can’t you?

More to the point, Millicent can — much, much better, usually, than with a block-formatted synopsis. The fewer provocations you can give for her to start stomping on nearby buildings, the better.

I see some of the sharper-eyed among you jumping up and down, hands raised. “Anne! Anne!” the eagle-eyed shout. “That’s not a standard slug line in your first example! It says Synopsis where the page number should be! Why’d you do it that way? Huh? Huh?”

Well caught, eager pointer-outers. I omitted the page number for the exceedingly simple reason that this is a one-page synopsis; the slug line’s there primarily so Millicent can figure out whose synopsis it is should it happen to get physically separated from the query or submission it accompanied. (Yes, it happens. As I MAY already have mentioned, Millie and her cronies deal with masses and masses of white paper.)

If this were a multi-page synopsis, the slug line would include the page number, but regardless of length, it’s a good idea to include the info that it is a synopsis here. That way, should any of the pages mistakenly find their way into a nearby manuscript (again, it happens), it would be easy for Millicent to spot it and wrangle it back to the right place.

Sometimes, it seems as though those pages have a life of their own. Especially when the air conditioning breaks down and someone in the office has the bright idea of yanking the rotating fan out of the closet. Or Godzilla decides to take a stroll down a nearby avenue, shaking everything up.

Oh, you may laugh, but think about it: like a manuscript, a query or submission synopsis should not be bound in any way, not even by a paper clip. So if a synopsis page does not feature either the writer’s name or the title of the work (and the subsequent pages of most query synopsis often fail to include either), how could Millicent possibly reunite it with its fellows if it goes a-wandering?

Heck, even if it’s all together, how is she supposed to know that a document simply entitled Synopsis and devoid of slug lines describes a manuscript by Ignatz W. Crumble entitled WHAT I KNOW ABOUT EVERYTHING AND YOU SHOULD, TOO?

Don’t make Millicent guess; she may have had a hard day. Unidentified pages tend to end up in the recycling — or, if the Millicent happens to work in one of the many, many agencies that does not recycle paper (you’d be amazed), in the trash.

A second (or third, or fifth; extrapolate) page should also look very similar to any other page of standard-formatted manuscript, with one vital exception: the slug line for a synopsis should, as I mentioned above, SAY that the page it decorates is from a synopsis, not a manuscript, in addition to displaying the author’s last name, the title of the book, and the page number. (If you don’t know why a slug line is essential to include in any professional manuscript or why anyone would name something on a pretty page of text after a slimy creature, please see the SLUG LINE category on the archive list conveniently located at the lower right-hand side of this page.)

One caveat: if you are planning to submit a synopsis to a contest, double-check the rules: many literary contests simply disqualify any entry that includes the entrant’s name anywhere but on the entry form. (This is a sign of honesty in a contest, incidentally; it’s substantially harder to rig the outcome if the judges don’t know which entrant wrote which entry.) If you’re entering a name-banning contest, you should still include a slug line, but omit the first part: TITLE/SYNOPSIS/PAGE #.

Okay, some of you have had your hands in the air since you read the example above. “But Anne,” the tired-armed point out, “aren’t you ignoring the giant lizard in the room — or, in this case, on the page? You seem to have given some of the character names in all capital letters, followed by their ages in parentheses. Why?”

I’m glad you asked. It’s not absolutely necessary, technically speaking, but most professional fiction and memoir synopses capitalize the entire name of each major character the first time it appears. Not every time, mind you; just the first.

Why only the first? To alert a skimming agent or editor to the fact that — wait for it — a new character has just walked into the story.

Because Millicent might, you know, miss ‘em otherwise. She reads pretty fast, you know.

It is also considered pretty darned nifty (and word-count thrifty) to include the character’s age in parentheses immediately after the first time the name appears, resulting in synopsis text that looks something like this:

ST. THERESA OF AVILA (26) has a problem. Ever since she started dating multi-millionaire GEORGE ARMSTRONG CUSTER (82), all of her friends have unaccountably decided that she is mercenary and hates Native Americans. Apart from JEANNE D’ARC (30), her wacky landlady-cum-bowling-partner, who uses every opportunity to pump Theresa for man-landing tips, none of the residents of Theresa’s swanky Upper East Side co-op are even speaking to her — at least until they start desperately vying for invitations to her exclusive wedding extravaganza, a lavish event to be held onstage at the Oscars, with THE REVEREND DOCTOR OWEN WILSON (44 if he’s a day) officiating. How will Theresa find a maid of honor — and if she does, what will her jealous old boyfriend GOD (?) do in response?

Should any of you out there think you’re up to rounding out the plot above into some measure of coherence and submitting it, please, be my guest. Really. I’d love to read it.

For the rest of you, please note what I have done here: in preparing a synopsis for a comedy, I have produced — sacre bleu! — a humorous treatment of the material. Brevity need not be the death of wit.

And if I were creating a synopsis for a steamy romance novel with the same premise (although I tremble to think what a sex romp with that particular cast of characters would entail), you can bet your last wooden nickel that I would take some writerly steps to make my reader’s mouth go dry and his breath become short while perusing it.

Would I do this because I’m wacky? No, because — sing it out now, long-time readers — in a query or submission packet, the synopsis is a writing sample.

Oh, had I mentioned that fourteen or fifteen times already in this series? Well, it cannot be said too often, in my opinion. The sensible writer aims to use the synopsis to demonstrate not only that it is a good (or at least marketable) story, an attention-grabbing yarn peopled with fascinating, well-rounded characters, but that the s/he is a terrific storyteller.

Let’s take a quick field trip back to yesterday’s examples of a not-so-hot 1-page synopsis. Now that you know what Millicent is expecting to see, do you notice any formatting problems here?

If you immediately leapt to your feet, screaming, “It doesn’t have a slug line! It doesn’t have a slug line!” award yourself a gold star for the day. Make that two if you also bellowed that it doesn’t say anywhere on the page that it is a synopsis.

Take a medal out of petty cash if you noticed that the pages are not numbered: a major no-no in any submission, ever, and one of the more common mistakes. And yes, you should number it (although technically, it’s optional for a one-page synopsis — and no, you should not number it consecutively with the manuscript, unless a contest rules SPECIFICALLY tell you to do so. Just as the first page of Chapter 1 is always page 1, regardless of what may come before it in a submission packet, the first page of a synopsis is always page 1.

Top yourself with a halo if you also discovered that Aunt Jane made the rookie mistake of adding her name to the synopsis anywhere but in the slug line. For book-length works, the first page of text — regardless of whether it is in the manuscript, the synopsis, or any other requested materials — is not a title page.

Don’t treat it as if it were one; it looks unprofessional to the pros. Save your contact information for your query or cover letter and your title page.

Everyone happy with his or her score on that quiz? Excellent. Let’s tackle yesterday’s other negative example:

Where do we even begin? Millicent would almost certainly not even read this one — in fact, she might burst into laughter from several paces away. Any guesses why?

Well, for starters, it starts too far down on the page, falling into the same title-page error as the previous example. It’s the over-the-top typeface, though, and the fact that the page uses more than one of them, that would set Millicent giggling and showing it to her coworkers.

Oh, and it doesn’t contain a slug line or numbering, either. But I doubt Millicent would even notice that in mid-guffaw. Or while she is crying, “Next!”

It makes one other error for a fiction synopsis, a subtler one — and this one may surprise you: it mentions the title of the book in the text of the synopsis.

Why is this a problem? Well, for the same reason that it’s considered unprofessional to begin the descriptive paragraph in a query letter with something like LETTERS FROM HOME is the story of…: it’s considered stylistically weak, a sign that the synopsis is talking about the book instead of getting the reader involved in the story. Or, to put it another way, and a bit more bluntly: a fiction synopsis is supposed to tell the story of the book; one that pulls the reader out of the story by talking about it at a distance tends not to do that well.

And anyway, the title is already both at the top of the page (and SHOULD be in the slug line). Why, Millicent wonders impatiently, cradling her too-hot latte until it cools — she’s learning, she’s learning — would the writer WANT to waste the space and her time by repeating the information?

“Wait just a minute, Anne,” I hear some of my former questioners call from the rear of the auditorium. “You’re talking about the cosmetic aspects of the query synopsis as though it were going to be judged as pitilessly as the manuscript I’m hoping Millicent will ask me to submit. Surely, that’s not the case? The synopsis is just a technical requirement, right?”

Um, no. As I said, it’s considered a WRITING SAMPLE. So yes, the writing in it does tend to be judged — and dismissed — just as readily as problematic text anywhere else in the query packet.

Sorry to be the one to break that to you. But isn’t it better that you hear it from me than to be left to surmise it from a form-letter rejection? Or, as is more often the case, NOT surmise it from a form-letter rejection and keep submitting problematic synopses?

What? I couldn’t hear your replies over the deafening roar of aspiring writers all over the English-speaking world leaping to their feet, shouting, “Wait — my query or submission might have gotten rejected because of its formatting, rather than its writing or content?”

Um, yes — did that seriously come as a surprise to anyone? Oh, dear.

While my former questioners are frantically re-examining their query packets and rethinking their former condemnations of Millicents, is anyone harboring any lingering questions about submission formatting? This would be a great time to ask, because next time, we’ll be leaving technicalities behind and delving into the wonderful world of storytelling on the fly.

After I trample that one last cottage on the edge of town. If I’m on a rampage, I might as well be thorough. Keep up the good work!

Countdown to a contest entry, part 8.2: keeping some of those plot cats in the bag for the nonce

concealed cat
Hello again, campers —

Yes, I know I just posted the first installment of this sub-series on how to write a 1-page synopsis over, say, a weekend, but I’ve got a lot of ground to cover here. Here’s the next installment. Happy reading!

Last time, I let the cat out of the bag, all right: I divulged the secret that just because many diverse people — agents, editors, contest rule-writers, fellowship committees, etc. — use the term synopsis, it does not mean that they are necessarily all talking about an identical document. Different individuals, agencies, and institutions want different lengths, so it always behooves an aspiring writer to double-check each entity’s individual requirements. Being an intrepid soul, I jumped right in and tackled the most feared of such requests, the single-page synopsis.

And the crowd went wild; perhaps I should have begun with a 5-page synopsis and worked my way down. There seems to be something about the very idea of a 1-page synopsis that sends aspiring writers spiraling into an oh, my God, I have to write this in the next five minutes tizzy. Or so I surmise from the fact that my e-mail inbox (not the way I prefer to receive questions, folks; post ‘em in the comments, please) has been stuffed to the gills for the past two days with behind-the-scenes pleas to explain further.

I find this a trifle odd, there was absolutely nothing in that last post to indicate that I did not intend to give much, much more insight into the subject. Seriously, did the 27 posts of Querypalooza really leave any doubt about my great love of explaining things down to the last comma?

Relax, campers: this is only the third post into what promises to be a several-week series. To set your mind even more at rest, I’m going to go ahead and respond to a comment on the subject from eager-to-go reader Christie:

Great post, Anne. Just to clarify though, are you suggesting that a one-page synopsis doesn’t have to include the ending of the book? Should it just be a teaser?

Yes and no, Christie. Yes, a 1-page synopsis does not have to include the ending, just the premise and the central conflict. But no, it should most emphatically not be mistaken for a teaser or a back jacket blurb, intended just to provoke interest: a teaser typically just includes the premise, while a back jacket blurb usually consists of teaser + praise for the book.

The overwhelming majority of 1-page synopses both Millicent the agency screener and her aunt Mehitabel, the veteran contest judge, see in query packets are either teasers or back jacket copy. Neither fulfills the intended purpose of a 1-page synopsis: to convince a professional reader to ask to see the manuscript.

In order to do that, even a 1-page synopsis is going to have to convey something of the feel of the manuscript. But unlike a longer synopsis, where the writer actually is expected to provide a brief-but-complete overview of the book in question’s plot or argument (more on that later in this series), a 1-page synopsis is essentially a movie trailer for the book, intended only to perform a limited number of functions.

What functions, you ask? Glad you asked:

(1) introduce the major characters and premise,

(2) demonstrate the primary conflict(s),

(3) show what’s at stake for the protagonist, and

(4) ideally, give some indication of the tone and voice of the book.

These goals should sound very, very familiar to those of you who made the hard trek through Querypalooza series: a 1-page synopsis shares essentially the same objectives as the descriptive paragraph in a query. The synopsis merely allows more room to achieve them. In both, the goal is NOT to tell everything there is to tell about the book — these formats are simply too short to permit it — but to give the reader/hearer enough of a taste to whet his or her appetite.

In order to provoke what kind of response, ideally, campers? Everybody open your hymnals and sing along: the goal of a synopsis tucked into a query packet is to get the agent reading it to ask to see the manuscript, not provide so much information that reading it would be redundant.

Actually, this isn’t a bad list of goals for any length synopsis. Certainly, it’s quite a bit more than most that cross Millicent’s desk actually achieve. However, for a longer synopsis — say, the 5-page version most frequently requested by agents of their already-signed clients, or a slightly shorter one intended for contest submission — I would add to the list:

(5) for a novel or memoir, show the primary story arc through BRIEF descriptions of the most important scenes.

For nonfiction that isn’t story-based, present the planks of the overarching argument in logical order, along with some indication of how you intend to prove each point.

(6) show how the plot’s primary conflict is resolved or what the result of adopting the book’s argument would be.

Does that sound like an overwhelming set of tasks to pull off in a few short pages — or the dreaded one page? I can see how it might feel that way, but believe it or not, the vast majority of synopsis-writers attempt to do far, far more.

How so? Well, the first time you tried to write a synopsis, didn’t you try to tell the entire story of the book?

I shall take that behemoth sigh of disgusted recognition as a yes — and if I had to guess (do I? Do I? Apparently, I do), I would wager that those of you who didn’t answer that question in the affirmative have not yet tried to write a synopsis.

At least, not since you learned the difference between a synopsis and a back jacket blurb. Again, I’m not talking about those oh-so-common soi-disant synopses that don’t summarize the book so much as promote it. (This is the best novel since MIDDLEMARCH, only less depressing!) But of that pitfall, more follows anon.

If you find the necessity for brevity intimidating, you are hardly alone. I am perpetually meeting aspiring writers agonizing over it — and interestingly, the level of panic about writing them doesn’t seem to bear any relationship to how confident the writer feels about the manuscript itself, its level of polish, or even, in many cases, the writer’s level of familiarity with the publishing industry.

What that gut-wrenching fear does have to do with, evidently, is the imperative for brevity. Which is not, let’s face it, the natural impulse of those of us who sit down and write books.

Some years ago, I met a marvelous writer at a conference in New Orleans. Naturally, as conference etiquette demands, I asked her over crawfish etouffée what her first novel was about.

Forty-three minutes, two excellently-becreamed courses, and a dessert that the waiter took great delight in lighting on fire later, she came to the last scene.

“That sounds like a great novel,” I said, waving away the fourth waiter bent upon stuffing me until I burst. “And I really like that it’s an easy one to pitch: two women, misfits by personality and disability within their own families and communities, use their unlikely friendship to forge new bonds of identity in a lonely world.”

The author stared at me, as round-eyed as if I had just sprouted a second head. “How did you do that? I’ve been trying to come up with a one-sentence summary for the last two years!”

Of course, it was simpler for me than for her: I have years of experience crafting synopses and pitches. It is, as I mentioned last time, a learned skill.

To be fair, I also hadn’t lived through any of the real-life events that I had every reason to expect formed major incidents in the book. (What tipped me off that her novel might border on the autobiographical? What tips off so many pitch-hearers and query-readers: the fact that the author not only prefaced her summary with that statement so beloved of first-time novelists, “Well, it’s sort of based on something that really happened to me…” but she also very kindly told me after her descriptions of each fact-based incident in her 43-minute plot summary how the actual events had been different, as an interesting compare-and-contrast exercise. Quick hint to those of you writing autobiographical fiction: to a professional reader like an agent, editor, or contest judge, such statements almost never render a writer more credible as a narrator; if people in the publishing industry want real stories, they turn to memoir and other nonfiction. Save the accounts of how closely your novel mirrors your life for interviews after your book is published; trust me, your biographers will be agog to hear all about it.)

Still more importantly, because I had not yet read the book, I did not know the subtle character nuances that filled her pages. I could have no knowledge of how she had woven perspective with perspective in order to tease the reader into coming to know the situation fully. I was not yet aware of the complex ways in which she made language dance. All I knew was the premise and the plot — which put me in an ideal position to come up with a pithy, ready-for-the-conference-floor pitch.

Or — and I can feel that some of you have already jumped ahead to the next logical step here — a synopsis.

This is why, I explained to her, I always draft my pitch and synopsis before I write the book. About 1/3-1/2 of the way through the writing process seems to be the best time: less distracting than if I wait until the manuscript’s completely polished. I know that I can always tweak it down the road.

Stop clutching your chests; this honestly does make sense. Naturally, early-penned synopses and pitches will evolve as the book develops and the plot thickens, but I’ve never known a writer who could not easily give a one-page synopsis of her book when she was two weeks into writing it — and have seldom known the same author to be able to do so without agony a year later.

Those of you locked in mid-novel know what I’m about to advise, don’t you?

That lump in the pit of your stomach is not lying to you: I am seriously suggesting that you sit down and write at least a concise summary of the major themes of the book — if not actually a provisional 1-page synopsis (and, to be on the safe side, a 5-page one as well) — BEFORE you finish writing it.

At least as a rough draft: you can always revise it later on. Why get the constituent parts on paper first, while the plot elements are still painted in broad strokes in your head?

Synopses, like pitches, are often easier to write for a book that has not yet come to life. At the beginning of the writing process, it is easy to be succinct: there are not yet myriad plot details and marvelous twists to get in the way of talking about the premise and central conflict.

Everyone who has ever sighed in response to the ubiquitous question, “Gee, what is your book about?” knows this to be true, right?

I can tell that some of you still are not convinced. Okay, here is an even better reason to take the time early in the process to start thinking about the synopsis: in the long run, if you multi-task throughout the creation process, you will have an easier time at the querying and submission stage.

How so? Well, think how much happier you will be on the blessed day that an agent asks you for a synopsis. Wouldn’t you rather be able to say, “Sure; I’ll get that out to you right away,” instead of piping through mounting terror, “Wow, um, I guess I could pull one together and send it with the chapter you requested…in a month or two…will you excuse me while I track down my heart medication?”

More to the point, if you start earlier, you’ll have a better chance of writing a good synopsis that does credit to your writing skills. As I mentioned earlier in this series, too many aspiring writers seem to forget that the synopsis is a writing sample — and will be judged accordingly.

A panicked state is not, I have noticed, the most conducive to smooth summarization. Especially if the summarizer in question is trying to cram a 380-page plot into a scant couple of pages.

But just what does summarization mean in this context? Is it, as my dinner companion assumed, simply a shortened version of a long tale, including all of the twists, turns, subplots, and descriptions of what perspective and voice each of the mentioned scenes is in?

Of course not. In a synopsis, a writer is supposed to tell her story compellingly: basically the plot of the book, minus the subplots. Which is why, in case you’d been wondering, it’s a mistake to overload the synopsis with detail, instead of sticking to the major plot points.

Don’t believe me? Okay, let’s send Aunt Jane into a the agent of my dreams just asked me to tuck a synopsis into my submission packet, and I haven’t even begun to think about writing one! frenzy and aim her toward her book. (If you’re having trouble reading the words, try holding down the COMMAND key and typing + in order to enlarge the image.)

Contrast that, if you please, with the solid 1-page synopsis for the same book we discussed last time:

The difference is pretty stark, isn’t it? At the rate that the first example is crawling, it would almost be quicker to read the manuscript itself.

I heard you think that, synopsis-writers who already have requests to send pages: sorry to be the one to break it to you, but in a submission that includes a synopsis, Millicent will NOT immediately turn to the manuscript if she finds the synopsis unsatisfying. This is not like pretending you couldn’t hit the volleyball to save your life to get out of P.E. class in junior high school: a writer can’t wiggle out of the necessity of producing a professional synopsis by doing it poorly.

Besides, it’s not in your best interest to underestimate the potential importance of the synopsis in Millicent’s decision-making process. In the rather unlikely circumstance that she reads the synopsis first (submission screeners tend to pounce upon the first page of the manuscript right away, to see if they like the writing, then move on to a requested synopsis later), all a poorly-constructed synopsis is likely to impel her to do is reach for her already-prepared stack of form-letter rejections.

Hey, I don’t make the rules; I merely tell you about them. Pass the crawfish etouffée and tell me about your novel.

Some of you have had your hands in the air for quite some time. Yes? “Okay, Anne,” many of you call out, rubbing life back into your tingling appendages, “I get it why I need to take the time to produce a synopsis that presents my book’s premise and central conflict well. But the length of the synopsis listed in the agency of my dreams’ guidelines is not all that much longer than a standard back jacket blurb, so why not just write it as such. And while I’m at it, why shouldn’t I tuck the same highly flattering 1-page synopsis into my next contest entry to run a little promotional copy past Mehitabel?”

Well, the first reason that comes screaming to mind is that Millicent and Mehitabel have back jacket blurb-style synopses tossed at them all the time. You’re not going to win any points for originality, and frankly, telling an agent or contest judge how terrific your writing is never works out as well as showing them that you’re talented.

Why not? This style of synopsis-writing lends itself to a series of vague generalities and unsupported boasts. The result often looks a little something like this:

Yes, I know that there’s a typo in the last paragraph, smarty pants — and I sincerely hope that you caught some of the many standard format violations as well. (If you didn’t spot any, or if this is the first you’ve ever heard that there is an expected format for book submissions, please dash as swiftly as your little legs will carry you to the archive list at right, click on the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT or STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED heading, and absorb, absorb, absorb.)

But is this synopsis-cum-blurb a successful description of the book? Of course not. To understand why, let’s evaluate the effectiveness of all three of today’s synopses. Force yourself to ignore the many cosmetic excesses of that last example: try to read it purely for content. Then go back and take another gander at our first two examples of the day.

How do they compare? Setting aside the most important writing distinction between these three examples — the third TELLS that the book is good, whereas the first and second SHOW that why it might be appealing through specifics — let me ask you: how well does each fulfill the criteria for 1-page synopsis success that we established above?

Oh, have you forgotten what they are in the haze of panic at the prospect of having to write a 1-page synopsis yourself? Okay, let’s recap:

(1) introduce the major characters and premise,

(2) demonstrate the primary conflict(s),

(3) show what’s at stake for the protagonist, and

(4) ideally, give some indication of the tone and voice of the book.

Obviously, the last example fails in almost every respect. It does (1) introduce a few of the main characters and part of the premise, but this description dumbs them down: Lizzy seems to be the passive pawn of Mr. Wickham, and not too bright to boot. It mentions (2) one of the conflicts, but neither the most important nor the first of the book. It also entirely misses the book’s assessment of (3) what’s at stake for Lizzy (other than the implied possibility of falling in love with the wrong man). Most seriously, (4) this blurb actively misrepresents the tone and voice of the book, presenting it as a torrid romance rather than a comedy of manners.

Why is this a mistake? Well, think about it: would an agent who represents steamy romantica be a good fit for PRIDE AND PREJUDICE? Would s/he be likely to have the editorial connections to place it under the right eyes quickly?

And think about it: isn’t an agent who gets excited about the book described in this third example likely to be hugely disappointed by the opening pages of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE?

Example #1 — what I like to call the run-on synopsis — performs better on a lot of levels, doesn’t it? It presents both (1) the characters and premise fairly well. It doesn’t leave enough cats in the bag (Aunt Jane hasn’t left much to Millicent’s imagination, has she?), but you have to admit, it is an accurate representation of the plot, up to a certain point.

Unfortunately, a querier or submitter is not being graded on completeness. Aunt Jane should be concentrating on telling this story well, not in its entirety.

Especially since the brevity of the synopsis renders thoroughness impossible. By getting sidetracked by a minor conflict, its writer rapidly runs out of room to present the (2) primary conflict of the book. By focusing so exclusively on what happens, rather than upon establishing, say, the protagonist’s motivations and desires, it underplays (3) what’s at stake for her.

Hmm, I seem to have placed that last bit in boldface. One might almost take it for an aphorism on synopsizing.

Isn’t it interesting, though, how little actual quotation from the text (as I’ve done several times throughout) helps demonstrate the tone and voice of the book? PRIDE AND PREJUDICE is one of the great comedies of the English language — so shouldn’t this synopsis be FUNNY?

The middle example — the one that, if you will recall, is little more than a reformatted and slightly expanded version of the descriptive paragraph of the query letter — succeeds in fulfilling each of our goals. Or does it? Can you think of ways to improve upon it without extending the length beyond a single page?

Quick, now: Aunt Jane needs to know immediately, because the agent of her dreams asked her today to send the first 50 pages and a synopsis, and page 45 has just popped out of her printer. Can you pick up the pace, please?

See how much harder it is to come up with good synopsis ideas when you’re trying to do it in a hurry? Wouldn’t have been nice if Aunt Jane already had a synopsis on hand to send when the request came in?

I know, I know: it’s exceedingly tempting to procrastinate for as long as you possibly can about embarking upon a task as difficult and as potentially annoying as this, but working on the synopsis well before anyone in the industry might reasonably ask to see it guarantees that yours will have a significant advantage over the vast majority that cross Millicent’s desk: it won’t have been tossed together at the last possible nanosecond before sealing the submission packet. Or the query packet, if the agency of your aspirations accepts unsolicited synopses.

The results of last-minute synopsizing, as Millie herself would be the first to tell you, are not always pretty. Your manuscript deserves better treatment than that, doesn’t it?

I’ll leave you chewing on all of these big issues for the nonce; I don’t want to send any of you reaching for your heart medication again. After all, writing an eye-catching synopsis takes time.

So take a few nice, deep breaths. You don’t need to polish it off today. Present-day Anne here: but you might by next Tuesday. Stay tuned for the next installment, and keep up the good work!

Countdown to a contest entry, part 8.1: a crash course in writing a 1-page synopsis

Athene's birth from the head of Zeus
As I explained earlier today, since I know (because my spies are everywhere) that some of you brave souls in search of Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy are planning on entering this year’s William Faulkner/William Wisdom Literary Competition, deadline this coming Tuesday, I suspect that at least a few of you will be trying to toss off the requisite 1-page synopsis that must accompany book-length entries. I had been blithely assuming that those of you tackling this daunting endeavor would naturally look to the HOW TO WRITE A 1-PAGE SYNOPSIS category on the archive list at right if you ran into troubles, but crikey, the thing contains 20 posts!

So this evening, I’m going to be helping you out by streamlining those posts a little. To that end, I’m going to be reposting some wholesale and consolidating others, in order to bring you the information that you need as swiftly as possible. And if you’re reading this anywhere close to 8 p.m. Pacific time today, you might want to hit the refresh button from time to time; I’m going to keep adding stuff.

Nature of a tightly-packed schedule, I’m afraid. To get you started a dandy excerpt on the similarities between a standard pitch and a 1-page synopsis.

I can tell from here that you’ve just tensed up. Take a deep breath. No, I mean a really deep one. This is not as overwhelming a set of tasks as it sounds.

In fact, if you have every done a conference pitch, you probably already have a 1-page synopsis floating around in your mind. (For tips on how to construct one of these babies, please see the aptly-named 2-MINUTE PITCH category at right.)

Don’t believe me, oh ye of little faith? Okay, here’s a standard pitch for a novel some of you may have read:

19th-century 19-year-old Elizabeth Bennet has a whole host of problems: a socially inattentive father, an endlessly chattering mother, a sister who spouts aphorisms as she pounds deafeningly on the piano, two other sisters who swoon whenever an Army officer walks into the room, and her own quick tongue, any one of which might deprive Elizabeth or her lovely older sister Jane of the rich husband necessary to save them from being thrown out of their house when their father dies. When wealthy humanity-lover Mr. Bingley and disdainful Mr. Darcy rent a nearby manor house, Elizabeth’s mother goes crazy with matchmaking fever, jeopardizing Jane’s romance with Bingley and insisting that Elizabeth marry the first man who proposes to her, her unctuous cousin Mr. Collins, a clergyman who has known her for less than a week. After the family’s reputation is ruined by her youngest sister’s seduction by a dashing army officer, can Elizabeth make her way in the adult world, holding true to her principles and marrying the man she passionately loves, or will her family’s prejudices doom her and Jane to an impecunious and regretful spinsterhood?

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, right? This would be a trifle long as an elevator speech — which, by definition, needs to be coughed out in a hurry — but it would work fine in, say, a ten-minute meeting with an agent or editor.

It also, when formatted correctly, works beautifully as a one-page synopsis with only a few minor additions. Don’t believe me? Lookee:

See how simple it is to transform a verbal pitch into a 1-page synopsis? Okay, so if I were Jane (Austen, that is, not Bennet), I MIGHT want to break up some of the sentences a little, particularly that last one that’s a paragraph long, but you have to admit, it works. In fact, I feel a general axiom coming on:

The trick to constructing a 1-page synopsis lies in realizing that it’s not intended to summarize the entire plot, merely to introduce the characters and the premise.

Yes, seriously. As with the descriptive paragraph in a query letter or the summary in a verbal pitch, no sane person seriously expects to see the entire plot of a book summarized in a single page. It’s a teaser, and should be treated as such.

Doesn’t that make more sense than driving yourself batty, trying to cram your entire storyline or argument into 22 lines? Or trying to shrink that 5-page synopsis you have already written down to 1?

Yes, yes, I know: even with reduced expectations, composing a 1-page synopsis is still a tall order. That’s why you’re going to want to set aside some serious time to write it — and 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. (Where have I heard that before?)

Because, really, don’t you want YOURS to be the one that justified Millicent’s heavily-tried faith that SOMEBODY out there can tell a good story in 3 – 5 pages? Or — gulp! — 1?

Don’t worry; you can do this. There are more rabbits in that hat, and the muses are used to working overtime on good writers’ behalves.

Just don’t expect Athene to come leaping out of your head on your first try: learning how to do this takes time. Keep up the good work!

Countdown to a contest entry, part VII: one of these things is not like the other, or, not everything called a synopsis should be identical

Or, to put it graphically:
01_01_53-vulture_web.jpg is not the same fowl as 01_01_7_thumb.jpg

What, you ask, am I talking about? Well, last time, I began talking about the differences between a synopsis that an aspiring writer might submit along with a query or requested pages and one that works well in a contest submission. Although they are called by the same name, they actually serve different purposes, so it’s in your best interests to craft them differently.

Hey, both vultures and peacocks are birds, but you don’t expect them to move from Point A to Point B precisely the same way, do you? Would you feed a peacock Vulture Chow?

Of course not. You’d feed it Peacock Yummies.

So, to separate the fish from the fowl, I spent our last post 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 an otherwise perfectly rational writer to say, “More work for me? Bring it on!”

I was especially surprised not to hear much squawking from the nonfiction writers, particularly those of you brave souls gearing up to enter a memoir in a literary contest. I think that nonfiction entrants typically have a harder time producing a winning synopsis — or perhaps I merely believe 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 Pitchingpalooza series, you have an excellent memory: that’s more or less the goal of the 2-minute pitch as well.

Seems perfectly straightforward, now that you’ve seen me say it, right? Yet you would be flabbergasted — at least, I hope you would — at how few contest synopses-writers seem to realize that the point is to tell a terrific story. Seriously, in my experience, less than 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? Good question. Strap a parrot to your shoulder and follow me.

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. You’re going to want to show the entire 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, 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 engaging 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 — yes, even if all you are allowed is a 1-page synopsis — 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 contests 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 coffee shop), 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. You will 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 minuscule 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.

All of which would be completely inappropriate in a synopsis sent along with requested materials, right? Right? Anybody out there?

For starters, such a submission synopsis would be 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 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. You might conceivably 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 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, Virginia, 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.

Did some jaws just hit the floor out there? I’m not entirely surprised. 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!” the sore-jawed cry. “Why would personal revelation in a synopsis be 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 professional readers, though, there are only a few contexts where a lengthy discussion of why you chose to write a book is considered appropriate 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, as long as your reasons give Millicent the agency screener some hit why those reasons will prompt readers to be interested in the story you are telling..

(3) After you have signed with your agent, when she asks, “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 have my permission to 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 synopsis is if you have some very specific expertise or background that renders your take on a subject particularly valid. If so, and if your entry is in a nonfiction category, make sure that information is stated within the first paragraph of your 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 explanation 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 (smart adolescents are great at this), have 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 — and a successful climber of K2.

Then go on and tell us what the book is about. 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.

Yes, yes, I know that those of you who have been following this series closely you are sick of my pointing that out. (But not as sick as seeing yes over and over throughout this post, right? Chant it with me now: redundant phrasing annoys readers!) However, how likely is a judge who thinks your target market is a quarter of its actual size to give you high marks?

By making its actual size plain in a nonfiction entry’s synopsis, you can minimize that dreadful possibility. As in:

Two million Americans have been diagnosed with agoraphobia, yet there are few self-help books out there for them. GET ME AWAY FROM THESE PEOPLE! is written from an agoraphobic’s perspective, someone who truly understands what it feels like to have fear shrink the space around him

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, 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. in the topic at hand or went to a specific culinary school. Go ahead and state your qualifications –- just don’t slip up and mention yourself by name.

I sense that I’ve lost some of you. Or does all of that impatient sighing merely indicate that the bus for which many of you are waiting while reading this is behind schedule? “I get it, Anne,” those of you not lingering under a bus shelter moan. “A well-crafted synopsis can increase a contest entry’s overall chances of winning. But no matter what you say, I simply don’t have time to fine-tune my contest synopsis. I’ll be lucky to get my entry postmarked on time as it is!”

Okay, now it’s my turn to sigh: while certainly understandable, this is an exceedingly common attitude for contest entrants, at least in competitions for book-length works. You wouldn’t believe 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 manuscript 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 point out, however, that if you have a well-written, well thought-out synopsis tucked into your entry packet, your work will automatically enjoy an edge over the unhappy many that do not.

I have a few tips up my sleeve on how to increase that edge, of course — but you don’t have the time for that, do you, gusty sighers? Okay, let me spend what time we have left today on a quick, easy way to make a contest synopsis come across as the work of a serious writer: correct formatting.

Oh, stop laughing. Every year, hundreds — nay, thousands — of contest entries get, if not actually disqualified, then at least read with a less kindly eye, simply because they are presented incorrectly.

Sadly, even those conscientious aspiring writers that have taken the time to learn how to format their work professionally (by, say, consulting the HOW TO FORMAT A BOOK MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list at right) often mispresent their synopses. First, let’s look at the first page of a synopsis one might submit to an agent:

ss-1-jpeg.jpg

As you may see, a submission synopsis simply adheres to the rules of 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, were previously unaware that such a thing existed, and/or are unsure how proper formatting for a short story or article differs from a book manuscript or proposal, you’ll find plenty of visual examples under the STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED category.)

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:

ss-2-jpeg.tiff

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 that’s easily resolved. Lookee:

ss-c-jpeg.jpg

See? Very simple, very swift to implement. Notice any other differences between this and the submission synopsis?

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.

Even so, 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, conditions permitting, I shall polish off the hot topic of contest synopsis-polishing. Keep up the good work!

Countdown to a contest entry, part VI: what do you mean, the contest page limit includes a synopsis? Or, how to be brief without feeling as though you’ve just sailed off the ocean’s edge

Okay, I’m just going to accept it: the universe has been conspiring to slow this series down. Not to a crawl, by any means — have you been enjoying my posting on a daily basis again, Author! Author! habitu?s? — but not at the accelerated, oh-my-God-the-deadline-for-the-William Faulkner/William Wisdom Literary Competition-is-next-Monday (yes, really) pace I had anticipated.

Had I mentioned that there are cash prizes? And that I shall be there to shake the winners’ hands at this year’s award ceremony?

I shall press on as swiftly as I can — including, those of you planning to enter that particular contest this year (not that I’m trying to influence you or anything) will be glad to hear, a close examination of its entry guidelines over the weekend — but before I launch into today’s topic, I am going to pause for just a moment.

It’s more than worth it, for I have joyous news to report: D. Andrew McChesney, Author! Author!’s very first commenter, blogger, and a genteel fellow better known in these parts as Dave, has released his first novel, Beyond the Ocean’s Edge today! Congratulations on the successful completion of a long and fruitful voyage, Dave!

Just between us, I’m hoping to blandish our Dave to share his thoughts on the publication process with us later this month. As you may recall, he was generous enough to write a guest post last September on the ins and outs of self-publishing, a piece that provoked quite a bit of fascinating discussion. I am an inveterate blandisher, so I suspect I shall succeed.

I’m also an inveterate cheerleader for good writers’ work, so allow me to add: you may purchase the book here. And would I deprive you of the blurb?

Hotchkiss continued on. “Ed! You didn’t see it?” The use of his captain’s first name on deck attested to the first lieutenant’s growing apprehension and maddening confusion.

“See what, Isaac, my old friend?” Pierce recognized his comrade’s state of mind and did not correct his lapse of quarterdeck etiquette. Clearly, a more personal and comfortable approach was needed.

“The stars! The stars, sir! We weren’t just looking up at ‘em. We were amongst them. There was the sea, and then there wasn’t. An’ the stars were below us as well! And we were there, right among them, like we were the stars themselves, or the moon, or. . .”?

“I’m sure you saw what you’ve described. Unfortunately, I chanced not to see it, although I have had a strange feeling of timelessness.”?

Is it possible to sail beyond the ocean’s edge to another world? In 1802, Royal Navy Lieutenant Edward Pierce is ashore on half-pay because of the Peace of Amiens. He fortunately gains command of a vessel searching for a lost, legendary island. When the island is found, Pierce and his shipmates discover that it exists in an entirely different but similar world. Exploring the seas around Stone Island, HMS Island Expedition sails headlong into an arena of mistaken identities, violent naval battles, strange truces, dangerous liaisons, international intrigue, superstition, and ancient prophecies.

I’m not saying that I’m excited about this, mind you. I’m saying that I’ve already ordered my copy and already have a pencil ready to take notes for my Amazon review. (One of the nicer things a writer can do for a fellow keyboard-tapper, by the way, and something I hope you take the time to do for your favorite living authors.)

Aglow with that fine resolution, let’s move onward and upward. I’ve spent the last week talking about the various types of literary contest that an agent-seeking writer might conceivably want to enter. Today and tomorrow, I’m going to concentrate on an aspect of contest entry that seems to frustrate nearly every entrant: the synopsis.

Already, the chorus of groans shakes the skies. And frankly, I can’t say that I blame those of you who feel that way about churning out a synopsis, especially on a tight deadline. Like, say, in time to be postmarked Monday.

I hate to be the one to break the bad news (yet how often I seem to be), but just as synopsis-writing is a necessary evil of querying and/or submitting to an agent, if you are entering a category that covers book-length material, you will pretty much always be asked to include a synopsis. And while you’re already braced, let me rip off the Band-Aid quickly to add: since contest rules often specify an overarching page limit intended to cover both the submitted manuscript pages and a synopsis for the whole book, many entrants yield to the temptation to skimp on this important part of the contest puzzle.

What do I think of this strategy? To summarize what promises to be a couple of long posts’ worth of advice in a word: DON’T.

Contrary to widely-held writerly belief, a synopsis typically weighs more heavily in a contest entry’s success than in a submission packet agent, not less. Not to give away trade secrets or anything, but synopses tucked inside submission packets are not always read. Those accompanying query packets usually are, if our pal, Millicent the agency screener, feels that the query letter shows promise, but generally speaking, she will hop directly to the manuscript in a submission packet.

So which submission synopses tend to get read? Well, if the agency requested a partial, and Millie likes those pages, she will frequently glance at the synopsis before asking to see the rest of the book. Or, if her boss asked to see the whole thing, she might read the opening pages — and then, if she likes what she sees, take a peek at the synopsis. Or not.

Which is to say: not very many actually get read. The agent of your dreams will almost certainly want to have one at her elbow when she picks up the phone to pitch your work to editors, however. And that means — you’re sitting down by now, right? — that the more books you write over the course of your agented life, the more synopses you are going to have to write.

Had I mentioned that most writers, agented and pre-agented alike, consider the task a necessary evil?

The synopsis that accompanies a contest entry, on the other hand, virtually always receives some critical attention at judging time. That means — and you might want to rush into the kitchen and grab some dry crackers to munch; the nausea might come on suddenly — that every syllable of a contest synopsis is as important as any passage in your entered pages.

Actually, if you write it well, it might be even more important. Since so many perfectly lovely writing contest entries are marred by an obviously tossed-together synopsis, a well-constructed one tends to leap out at the judges, shouting, “Pick me! Pick me!”

Last year, I spent a month of posts on the ins and outs of writing a strong synopsis. (Now well hidden under the startlingly opaque category title HOW TO WRITE A REALLY GOOD SYNOPSIS. Why oh why do I not make these things easier to track down?) Heck, I even devoted some serious attention to the most hated specimen of the species (and the one most necessary for anyone thinking of entering a book-length work in the aforementioned Faulkner/Wisdom competition), the 1-page synopsis.

Following my tradition of concealment, I have secreted those posts under the code name HOW TO WRITE A 1-PAGE SYNOPSIS. But don’t tell anyone I told you.

Unless any of you kick up a hue and cry, demanding that I revisit the issue now in very great detail (anyone? Anyone?), I’m going to proceed on the assumption that most of you have already mastered the basics of writing an (ugh) synopsis. For the next couple of days, I would like to focus on the differences between a synopsis that might wow a Millicent and one that might impress a contest judge.

In answer to that deafening unspoken question my readership just flung in my general direction: yes, I am indeed suggesting that you write two separate synopses, one to accompany contest entries, and one to send out with your query and submission packets. Got a problem with that?

Judging by the widespread rending of garments and troubling of heaven with bootless cries on the subject of all of the extra work that would entail, I gather that you do. Hear me out, please. Most contest synopses read as though their authors regarded them as — get this — an annoying nuisance to be polished off as quickly as humanly possible, much in the same manner as a child will gulp down a hated vegetable his parents have told him he must eat, simply in order to clear it from his plate.

And this, frankly, mystifies Millicent’s Aunt Mehitabel, the veteran contest judge. “If I didn’t know better,” she clucks over hundreds of entries every year, “I would think that these writers were laboring under the impression that the writing there were not being judged, too, in addition to the writing in the entry proper.”

Oh, Hitty, if only you were sitting where I am, hearing thousands of prospective contest entrants suck in their breath sharply in surprise. An astonishingly high percentage of entrants seem to be unaware that the synopsis is part of the writing being evaluated in a contest, just as in a submission.

And that, breath-suckers, is strategically unwise. I’ve said it before, and I shall no doubt say it again: every word of your writing that passes under the eyes of a professional reader is a writing sample. Treat it accordingly.

Another common Mehitbel-mystifier involves submitting a too-terse synopsis, presented in what is essentially outline form. (Sometimes, writers present it literally in outline format, believe or not.) Short on the sensual details and plot twists that enliven a story, these just-the-facts-ma’am synopses give no indication that the author is a talented storyteller. Just that she is darned good at making lists.

See my note above about every word of an entry being a writing sample. I’m going to keep repeating that depressing truth until everyone within the sound of my voice believes it.

What makes me think that most contest entrants don’t currently believe it? How about the frequent practice of lifting entire phrases, sentences, and even paragraphs from the entry itself and plopping them down in the contest synopsis, as if the judge isn’t going to notice?

After our recent series on structural repetition, I sincerely hope that last question made you laugh out loud. Chant it with me, campers: professional readers like judges are born nit-pickers: they’re going to notice.

It’s also becoming increasingly common to conflate a screenplay synopsis — which typically has separate headings for action and major characters — with a literary synopsis. How might one define the latter? Here goes:

A book synopsis is a linear narrative concerned with plot for fiction and structure for nonfiction, a brief exposition in the present tense of the story of a novel or the argument of a book. Usually, in a fiction or memoir synopsis, a character’s name will be capitalized the first time it appears, followed by the character’s age in parentheses: GEORGE (13). Typically, synopses run from 1-5 pages (double-spaced), depending upon the requirements of the requesting agent, editor, or contest.

In other words, it’s our old bugbear, a coolclips_wb024789.gif

In more other words, not everything labeled synopsis is the format that contest judges expect. In yet a third set of words: remember how I mentioned yesterday that there are certain problems that prompt judges to slide an entry prematurely into the non-finalist pile as soon as they appear? A screenplay-style synopsis is one of ‘em.

Why? Well, it makes it so very apparent that the entrant has not learned the norms of the literary world — and believe I may have mentioned several dozen times throughout the course of this series, one of the things being evaluated in a literary contest is a book’s marketability. To put the prevailing logic bluntly, the vast majority of judges will prefer an entry that is professionally presented — that is, one that adheres to standard format and resembles what a top-notch agent would expect to see in a successful submission — over even a brilliantly-written submission that does not conform to those standards.

To translate that into practical terms, few judges are going to be willing to waste finalist space on an entry that flouts the expectations of submission. They want to promote writing that has a fighting chance in the marketplace.

Seriously, I’ve seen this criterion included on judges’ rating sheets. Please, I beg of you, do not fall into the pervasive trap of believing that literary contests are the last haven of writing for its own sake. For contests that accept book-length work, that’s seldom the case.

Another type of synopsis that tends to elicit a knee-jerk reaction from Mehitabel: one that does not summarize the plot or argument of the book at all. Instead, it reads like promotional copy: This is the best book about the undead since Interview with the Vampire! This cookbook will change cuisine as we know it!

Or, even more common: This is the moving, insightful, beautifully written story of two kids in love, a modern-day Romeo and Juliet. You’ll laugh; you’ll cry; you’ll want to call up your high school sweetheart to reminisce.

Clearly, this entrant has confused a synopsis with a back-jacket promotional blurb. Judges are seldom amused by this, for precisely the same reason that Millicent tends not to be: they want to make up their own minds about how well-written/important/marketable/likely to induce drunken dialing a piece of writing is, not have it announced to them.

So what quality in a contest synopsis that the writing is good/important/market-ready/conducive to poor judgment? Once again, an old nag trots from the writing advice stable to admonish us all: showing, not telling, in the synopsis is the best way to demonstrate the high quality of your writing.

Again with the bootless cries? What now? “But Anne,” many of you protest, waving your boots around, “a synopsis is so short! I barely have time to tell my story, much less show it!”

Relax, garment-renders. There are a few tricks of the trade; we’ll be getting to them soon.

But first, let’s note one more frequent strategic error, a phenomenon often seen in query packet synopses as well: devoting virtually the entire synopsis to the premise of the book. Unbelievably often, this tactic leads to the exclusion of the major conflicts, mention of the major characters, or — in a synopsis longer than a page or two — any indication of the story arc or ending.

The usual authorial justification for this, of course, is I don’t want to give the ending away. Understandable, of course — were these writers not asking the judges to recognize the high quality of books that they had the luxury of reading in their entirety. Most contests that give awards for long-form writing, however, call for only the opening pages and a synopsis.

So is it completely unreasonable for the judges to want to be provided with proof that the author has at least thought through the ending of the book, as well as the beginning? Or — and you’d be astonished at how often this turns out not to be the case — that the manuscript they are considering for an award has actually been written to completion.

For a nonfiction work, of course, entering an incomplete manuscript in a chapter + synopsis contest would make some sense: the logical time to enter a contest is when one is circulating the book proposal, right? Naturally, though, someone who has written a book proposal will already produced an Annotated Table of Contents, demonstrating the story arc of the proposed book. Mehitabel certainly has a reasonable claim to deserving to know what that is.

For a novel — which, as I hope everyone is aware, is expected to be completely drafted before the novelist begins to query it — that claim rises to the level of a right. Mehitabel needs to know whether the author of the entry before her not only can write, but can structure an entire book.

Of course, any entrant is free to interpret the synopsis requirement as s/he pleases. It’s only fair to tell you, though, that in every contest I’ve judged, none of stripes of synopsis I’ve just mentioned would have made it to the semifinalist round, much less been seriously considered for the top prize. And that’s wasn’t my independent call: those were the rules. I just mention.

As if all that weren’t enough to make even the bravest first-time contest entrant tremble like a leaf at composition time, contest synopses often need to be shorter than submission synopses. That means, often, that writing them is harder.

Why? Well, most contest entries set absolute maximum page limits. Page space will be at a premium, therefore. For instance, if the chapter you want to submit is currently 23 pages long, and the page limit (exclusive of title page, which is never counted in a contest’s maximum page count) is 25, you’re either going to need to shorten your already-existing synopsis to 2 pages or make some serious cuts to your chapter to permit something longer.

Guess which option most contest entrants pick? You guessed it: contest judges see many, many single-page synopses.

Unless the contest rules actually call for it to be that short, however, those synopses tend to lose style points for the entry. After all, as many of you howled at me earlier in this post, it’s awfully darned difficult to tell the story of a reasonably complex book within a couple of dozen lines of text.

Even if the contest rules specify a super-short synopsis (or make it sound shorter by calling it a plot outline), though, please do not give into the quite substantial temptation to fudge a little to stay within the specified parameters. Even if you have been asked to produce a 3-paragraph synopsis of a 500-page book, DO NOT single-space it, shrink the print size, or fudge the margins to make it fit within the specified limits, unless the contest rules say you may.

Why am I being so adamant about this? Simple: if you do it, you will get caught and penalized.

It’s kind of a no-brainer for the judge, actually. Trust me, if the rest of your entry is in 12-point Times New Roman with 1-inch margins, double-spaced, almost any judge is going to be able to tell right away if your synopsis’ margins are .8″ all around. Or if the type is shrunk to 95%.

The same holds true, incidentally, if you submit a super-long synopsis. Because judges are expected to rate entries for professional presentation, unless contest rules specify otherwise, it’s prudent not to allow a contest synopsis to run over 5 pages or under 2.

Why those limits? A synopsis that is much shorter will make you look as if you are unable to sustain a longer exposition; if it is much longer, you will look as though you aren’t aware that a 3- to 5-page synopsis is fairly standard in the industry.

If this is starting to sound a bit repetitious, congratulations — you’ve grasped a fundamental truth about literary contests. An entry’s synopsis, just like its chapter(s), is subject to judging for clarity, coherence, marketability.

Oh, and professionalism. Had I mentioned that?

Which is why a synopsis that reads like — wait for it — a synopsis will virtually always receive higher marks than one that sounds like a back-jacket blurb (My writing teacher says this is the best novel since THE SUN ALSO RISES!) or an exposition on why the author chose to write the book (It isn’t autobiographical, but”?).

Instead, if you are entering a fiction category, make sure that the novel sounds engaging, marketable — and like the best yarn since TREASURE ISLAND. For a memoir, ditto. And for other nonfiction, present the argument as fascinating and rigorously supported.

But use the synopsis to show that your book is all of these things, not to tell about it.

Admittedly, summarizing a 400-page book in just a few pages that’s a fairly tall order. No one contests that. You’re going to need to cover that plot or argument with dispatch. But that doesn’t necessarily mean being vague or leaving out eye-catching details.

Oh, stop groaning. That’s going to be true of your first few attempts at writing a synopsis, no matter the context in which it is requested. But, unlike many of the other hoops through which aspiring writers need to jump through on the way to landing an agent, the ability to write a strong synopsis is a skill that’s going to serve you well for your entire literary career.

Don’t pretend you didn’t hear me the first time. Pull out your hymnals and sing it out: even the long-agented and often-published still need to write ‘em occasionally. Might as well learn to do it well.

In both contest and submission synopses, most fiction writers make the mistake of summarizing the plot in generalities, rather than — got a pencil handy? You’re going to want to take notes — giving a brief overview of the major conflicts of the plot through a series brief, vividly described scenes redolent with juicy, concrete details.

Not clear on the difference? Let’s take a gander at a fairly typical opening paragraph for a synopsis:

JACQUELINE (42) is experiencing severe problems in her life: a boss who alternately seems to hate and praise her, a father who calls all the time to grill her about her love life, and a wacky neighbor who is constantly knocking on her door to borrow things. She feels like she’s going out of her mind until she meets the man of her dreams, an architect whose bedroom eyes make her swoon, but who may already have a wife. After a series of disturbing “chance” meetings with Josh, she finds that it’s easier to accept a temporary demotion than to keep on fighting battles on all fronts.

Okay, let me ask you: how many lines into that summary did your attention start to wander? How many lines before you started to become confused about what was going on? And if you made it all the way to the end, did you find yourself wondering whether Josh was the architect, the boss, or the neighbor?

And what the heck was up with those quotation marks around something that clearly wasn’t spoken aloud?

Good; you’re thinking like an agency screener. And like a contest judge.

Why doesn’t this excerpt doesn’t hold the attention? It’s stuffed to the gills with generalities and clich?s. But a synopsis does not need to resort to either. Take a look at the same premise, summarized with a bit more pizzazz and a lot more specifics:

Freshly-divorced graphic designer JACQUELINE (42) is finding it hard to sleep these days. Staying awake isn’t much of a picnic, either. Her boss, ALBERT (87) cannot seem to make it through a staff meeting at the magazine without criticizing her layouts while running a warm, greasy hand up her stockinged thighs under the conference table.

You already want to read this contest entry, don’t you? So will Mehitabel. That’s because the details are compelling and unusual.

Oh, you want to see that magic trick again? Okay, let’s see where else dialing back the vague helps us:

Every morning at precisely 9:24, her habitually-marrying father (OWEN, 67) telephones her at work to see if she met Mr. Right the night before — and when she sheepishly says no, he regales her with tales of his latest paramour. Even her nights are disturbed by her lonely neighbor, CLIVE (24), who can’t seem to make it past midnight without scratching on her door to ask to borrow something — her milk, her hairdryer, her cat.

She manages to run carefully-balanced chaos of her life runs with relative smoothness until dreamy, suspender-wearing architect JOSH (48) comes to measure her office for long-overdue renovations. But does that untanned line on his left ring finger mean that he, too, is recently separated — or that he’s the kind of rat who slips his wedding ring into his pocket every time he comes within smoldering range of an attractive woman?

Yes, this second synopsis is a trifle longer, but aren’t those few extra lines worth it, when they give the story so much more oomph? Oomph is, after all, important in a contest entry.

A contest judge, like an agency screener, typically reads quite a few entries within a single sitting. If you want yours to end up in the pile with the finalists, you’re going to want that judge to remember the story or argument of your book, as well as the quality of the writing.

Remember them for positive reasons, that is. If your synopsis doesn’t cause Mehitabel to make a mental note to rush out and buy that book the nanosecond it hits the shelves, it may be lacking something in the oomph department.

Do I see a raised hand or two out there? “But Anne,” I hear some of you asking, “wouldn’t everything you’ve just said be applicable to either a submission or a contest synopsis? I thought we were talking about contest synopses specifically.”

Good point, ethereal questioners. Yes, these principles would apply equally well to either type of synopsis. However, for a contest synopsis, since you will also be submitting the opening of the book — even if the rules merely say that you should include A chapter, rather than specifying Chapter 1, you’re pretty much always going to be better off submitting the beginning — you can get away with covering those early pages only very lightly in the synopsis.

Actually, since those opening 10 pages (or 15, or 25) are all that the judges are going to see of the book, you would be well within your rights to streamline the plot more than you might for a regular synopsis. You could also — you’re still sitting down, right? — lose a subplot or two.

Stop glaring at me: your job here is not to present Mehitabel with a morbidly accurate summary of every aspect of the book, but to convince her that the manuscript it represents contains an enjoyable, well-written story or argument. If you can construct a more vivid, compelling story by sticking to only the book’s primary plotline (which, in a short synopsis of a long novel, is often the case), go ahead.

The point of the contest synopsis, after all, is to wow the judges with what a great storyteller you are, not to reproduce every twist, turn, and minor character’s angst. This may feel a touch misleading, but after you are wearing the first place ribbon, no one is going to come running up to you crying, “?Hey! Your synopsis left out three major plotlines, and didn’t mention the protagonist’s sister! Foul! Foul!”?

Trust me on this one. I hear contest judges yell things all the time.

For memoir, it’s especially important to streamline the story. Why? Well, most memoir contest synopses include a little too much information extraneous to the primary plotline. For the synopsis, hit only the dramatic high points — and make sure to give some indication of how the main character grows and changes throughout the book.

Yes, I’m talking about you, memoirist. You hadn’t been thinking of yourself as your own protagonist? Mehitabel and Millicent will.

Oh, and avoid making the common mistake of mentioning in either a contest or submission synopsis for a memoir that the story being told here is true. Actually, you should eschew it in a query, too: in publishing circles, all nonfiction is assumed to be based upon truth.

Just ask James Frey, he of the A MILLION LITTLE PIECES scandal.

Seriously, the true memoir is as much of an pet peeve as the fiction novel or the nonfiction how-to book. To the ears of the industry — and to contest judges that pay attention to publishing norms — all of these terms are redundant.

For other non-fiction entries, you’re going to want to reproduce the basic argument of the book in the synopsis. Try starting with a thought-provoking question (In a society as complex as America’s, why isn’t there more social acceptance of squirrel-lovers?), then moving on to why that question is important enough to answer. Present the essential planks of your argument in logical order, and give some indication of the kind of evidence you intend to use to back it up.

But again, remember to be specific in your overview, not vaguely general. Remember, just as Millicent does not have time to fill in any logical holes in a query, Mehitabel neither has the time nor is allowed to project her notions of what your book is about onto your entry. Sing it out, series-followers: a contest judge must evaluate an entry based solely upon what is on the page. Don’t expect a lenient reading.

I hear some throat-clearing out there. “Um, Anne? Again, dandy advice for either kind of synopsis, but how should I handle nonfiction in a contest synopsis in particular?”

Tenacious, aren’t you? I can refuse you nothing.

In a contest synopsis for any kind of nonfiction book (including a memoir), it is usually a good idea to include some brief indication of the target market and why your book will serve that market better than what is currently available. Essentially, you’re giving Mehitabel a free taste of the argument that you will be making in your book proposal.

Do keep it short and to-the-point, though. Hyperbole does not work well in this context, so steer clear of grandiose claims (Everyone in North America will want to buy this book!) and stick mostly to explaining (in vivid, specific terms, please) what the book is about.

But most of all, make sure that the synopsis makes the book sound like a great read. If Mehitabel doesn’t want to place an order for your as-yet-unpublished book, believe me, your contest entry is not going to make it to the finalist round.

As with a novel or memoir’s story arc, the best way to achieve this in just a few pages may well involve leaving out some of the less important planks of your argument. Do not feel compelled to give the chapter-by-chapter summary you would in a book proposal. Just because you spend 80 pages on the spiritual life of tadpoles in your book on frogs doesn’t necessarily mean than a description of it will read well in a contest synopsis.

That use of specifics made your eyes light up, didn’t it, coming after those two generalizations? It would for Millicent, too.

See now why you might benefit from writing one version of the synopsis for agents, and another, more streamlined one that gets tucked into contest entries? Different contexts — and sometimes even different contests — may call for different approaches.

Flexibility, after all, is as important a component of the writer’s tool bag as the ability to write an eye-catching opening paragraph. Don’t worry that a judge is going to assume that you don’t understand how to write a submission synopsis — a contest entry is a different animal, and everyone concerned understands that.

Next time, I shall give you a few more pointers on how to make that synopsis appeal a bit more to contest judges. As if that weren’t enough to set a contest entrant’s heart aflutter, I shall be showing visual examples of how a synopsis should be formatted.

Oh, the excitement is palpable. Keep up the good work!

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!

Queryfest, part XXIX and I/II: tracking the wily US letter outside of its natural habitat

Last time, judging by the number of horrified private e-mails I have received since I last posted, I suspect I outdid myself on the reader-cautioning front. As so often happens, what induced widespread panic was not one of my habitual grand, wide-ranging philosophical statements, but commentary on a relatively small, practical matter it had never occurred to me to discuss in this forum — and, based upon the aforementioned e-mails, had not occurred to many of my international readers as a problem.

At the risk of sending still more of you charging into the streets, wild-eyed and screaming, allow me to recap: if you are planning upon querying or submitting to a US-based agency, your letter/synopsis/manuscript/everything else you even consider sending them should be printed on US letter-sized paper (8.5″ x 11″), not the internationally standard A4 (8.26″ x 11.69″).

(Oh, and at the risk of repeating myself on another point: it honestly is more efficient — and easier on me — if readers post their reactions and questions in the comments here on the blog, rather than sending them via e-mail. That way, I do not end up composing 42 separate soothing responses when only one would suffice. Also, if you post questions and concerns here, the chances are infinitely higher that some future reader with a similar perplexity will find the response. Karma points for all concerned!)

Those of you far-flung readers who did not immediately clutch your chests and hurl maledictions toward the muses are, I would guess, (a) not intending to approach US-based agents and publishing houses, in which case you should indeed stick with A4, (b) already aware that when in Rome, it’s only polite to do as the Romans do, in which case your tact is to be commended, or (c) smugly assuming that as you are cost-conscious enough to be approaching these agents and publishers electronically, this admonition simply does not apply to you. In that final case, I’m afraid I have some bad news.

You see, US printers and photocopiers are stocked with 8.5″ x 11″ paper — and it’s not at all beyond belief that an agent, literary contest, or small publisher whose submission guidelines specify electronic submissions will want at some point to print out your synopsis, query, entry, or manuscript. So even if you are submitting electronically from abroad, your submissions should be formatted for US letter-size paper.

Half of you did double-takes at the mention of the word contest, didn’t you? That’s right, campers: the overwhelming majority of the surprisingly hefty number of contest entries sent from abroad to writing contests here are misformatted. Either they are printed on the wrong size paper or, if the entry arrives electronically, they are formatted for A4. Any guesses why either might result in instant disqualification, even if the contest’s rules did not specify US letter?

Award yourself a gold star if you immediately leapt to your dainty feet, shouting, “I know, Anne! A4 allows more words per page than US letter, even with the same margins. So if the pages were full and the contest had length restrictions for entries, it would be quite easy to run quite a bit over the expected word count inadvertently.”

Quite right, gold star recipients. To borrow an example from the other side of the Atlantic, here is how the opening to the third chapter of Sir Walter Scott’s IVANHOE would appear in US letter — and, as is our wont here at Author! Author!, if you are having trouble reading individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and hitting + repeatedly.

Here’s the first page of that chapter again, formatted for A4. Can you blame Mehitabel, everyone’s favorite veteran literary contest judge, for suspecting that ol’ Walt was trying to sneak in some extra verbiage?

In a paper submission, she’s likely recognize the problem here as a different paper size. In an electronic submission, though, she might just have a vague sense that something was wrong here. 11-point type instead of 12-point, for instance, or the whole shebang shrunk by 97%: both are fairly common dodges contest entrants (and aspiring writers frustrated by too-short synopsis requirements in general) utilize to try to side-step length restrictions. So even if she had not already knocked this opening out of finalist consideration for all of those which clauses (not considered particularly graceful writing, by current American standards) or the U.K. spellings (when in Rome, etc.), she might well have moved it to the disqualification pile for formatting reasons.

Did that blinding flash of light I saw illuminate the ether a moment ago indicate that the logic puzzle-lovers among you have just extrapolated correctly? “But Anne,” you cry, clutching your metric rulers, “does that mean that all of the time I have already invested in getting my query down to a single page — or whittling my synopsis down to a specified number of pages, or hacking at my contest entry until it is the length requested in the rules — has not in fact achieved my desired object? Are you (gulp) telling me (shiver) that because I wrote all of these assuming the A4 format, they are too long by US letter-sized paper standards?

That’s precisely what I’m telling you, swift calculators. As we saw in a previous post, writers querying, submitting, and entering from abroad frequently violate US length expectations without either intending to cheat or realizing that they have. And no, neither Mehitabel nor her niece, our pal Millicent the agency screener, will necessarily cut you any slack for not being aware of the difference in the paper supply.

Well might you gasp like a trout yanked from the murky depths to sunlit air, e-mailing queriers. If you have been composing your queries in Word set to printing on A4, copying your letters, and pasting them into an e-mail, they probably are longer than a US-generated query would be. And yes, Millicent probably has noticed.

Tempted to think that you might get away with it, are you? Let me ask you: if you had spent the past few months reading thousands of 1-page queries, do you honestly think that your brain wouldn’t automatically start counting lines if the one in front of you seemed a touch on the long side?

While it can be annoying to trim an extra line or two from a query that’s already bumping up against the one-page limit, and downright maddening to try to round a contest entry off so the last page does not end in mid-sentence (although in a contest for book-length works, just as in an agent’s request for a specific number of pages, no one expects the bottom of the last page to end a sentence, section, or thought), I reserve most of my compassion for the hapless submitter-from-abroad wrestling with a synopsis. Pretty much no matter who a writer is or how long the synopsis in question is supposed to be, every line is precious. And since the convention for synopses is to fill all of the allowed pages to the last line or the one before it — you knew that, right? — those few extra lines afforded by A4 paper can make quite a bit of difference.

Yes, of course I’ll show you. To borrow another story from across the pond, force it into a YA format (hey, it’s been a boring day), and present it in US letter:



Uses up every available line, does it not? Here’s precisely the same synopsis formatted for A4.



Makes more of a cumulative length difference than you would have thought, doesn’t it? This second version could take another entire paragraph — and don’t tell me that in summarizing a plot as complex as HAMLET, our friend Will would not have appreciated a little extra descriptive space. Not on this continent, buddy!

Now that I have impressed upon you the importance of using the paper size (and accompanying formatting) if you will be sending queries, synopses, manuscripts, and/or contest entries to the US from abroad, I still have that uneasy sense that those of you affected by this news might be gathering your pitchforks and torches to storm the castle, anyway. “But Anne,” you shout, brandishing the aforementioned weapons of mad scientist intimidation, “it’s not as though US letter is common outside the US. Where would you suggest I pick some up?”

Ooh, good question, pitchfork-brandishers — and a much better question than it would have been just a few years ago. For quite some time, the answer was fairly easy: US-based Kinko’s stocked US letter paper in its outlets all over the world. Once FedEx and Kinko’s merged, however, that seemed to become quite a bit less common. So while I could, as most writing advisors still do, just glibly tell those of you living abroad to track down a US-owned company, walk in, and demand to buy a ream or two of their paper, that’s less feasible than in days of yore.

So what’s a writer to do? The advice would be to order US letter paper from an American-owned company that has branches in your neck of the woods — while Amazon UK doesn’t seem to stock it, Amazon US does, and they do ship abroad. Shipping costs will be expensive enough, though, that you might want to try stopping by your local stationary store first, smiling as sweetly as you can, and asking them to order a box for you, just for comparative pricing purposes. (Your stationer may know US letter by its alternate name, American quarto.)

Yes, that’s rather inconvenient, but certainly less so than the primary answer I found when I did a quick online search — which was, I kid you not, “Go ask at the American embassy.”

While I’m on the subject of tracking down hard-to-find office supplies necessary to the writing set, this seems like an excellent time to repost a question that nonfiction writer Liz brought up the last time I wrote about the rigors and strains of pulling together a nonfiction proposal. After having eyed the photo I posted, she inquired:

What is the make of this portfolio? I cannot find one like this that is not made of paper/card and 30 pages max capacity. Please help!!

I can’t even begin to estimate how many times a year I hear this particular cri de coeur, both via e-mail (boo!) and popping up in the comments (hooray!). Since the comments are, for some reason that escapes me, not searchable with that handy little search engine that continually lurks for your exploratory pleasure at the upper right-hand corner of this blog, though, some of you may have missed my answers. Let’s go ahead and address this in a searchable part of the blog, hey?

For those of you who are not already gnashing your teeth over this particular problem, in the United States, book proposals are presented in plain black folders — yes, even at the submission stage. Don’t even consider trying to use anything fancy or colorful; it will just look unprofessional to the pros. What Millicent and her boss, the agent of her dreams, will expect to find in a nonfiction submission is something like this:

book proposal folder1

I know: boring. That’s the way they like it.

The folders in question, by the way, are the ones with horizontal pockets inside, not the ones with brads in the middle. The latter are for high school book reports, the former for book proposals, and ne’er the twain shall meet. So if the folder in your hand does not look like this when you open it:

book proposal photo 2

scuttle on back to the office supply story and pick up one that does. And whatever you do, do not bind your proposal in any way. Let those pages flap around loose, just as they do in a manuscript. Well, not quite the same: the marketing part of the proposal is placed (neatly, please) on the left-hand pocket, while the sample chapter, author bio, and clippings are typically placed on the right-hand side.

Which leads us right back to Liz’s problem, right? A book proposal usually runs in the neighborhood of 30-60 pages, including sample chapter, so she, clever writer, wants a folder that holds at least 20 pages per side. Generally speaking, plastic folders tend to hold more in their pockets than the flimsy cardstock type. (Liz’s proposal won’t be discarded if she sends it a nice cardstock folder; it’s merely more likely to get a bit mangled in transit.)

Once again, the Internet is the writer’s friend here. The Office Depot website carries an Oxford brand pocket folder that can hold up to 200 pages. It’s looks like it may be available only online, though. Scrolling through the site, I found one that they seem to sell in their stores, an Office Depot brand 2-pocket poly folder that holds up to 50 pages..

They also, should anyone happen to be in the market for it, sell a really nice 24-lb. US letter paper. While 20-lb. paper is fine for a submission, I prefer 24-lb.: it won’t wilt in the hand with repeated readings.

Oh, you don’t want Millicent to get so excited about your writing that she passes pages of it around the office?

Again, though, you might want to toddle down to your local stationary emporium and inquire. You might be surprised at what’s lurking in their back room.

My overall point, should it have gotten a trifle lost in the welter of details, is that when it comes to querying, submission, and literary contest entry, what might be easiest — or most obvious — for the writer often is not what the people on the receiving end are expecting. Yes, that’s can be kind of annoying, but remember, one of the things an aspiring writer is demonstrating at query or submission time is that she can present her work professionally. That means, among other things, printing manuscripts on the size of paper currently in use in that agency and presenting proposals in the kind of quiet, dignified folder that allows the writing to speak for itself.

Because that’s how the Romans roll, people. Keep up the good work!

Crowing for good reason: Author! Author! Award for Expressive Excellence winner Bruce Alford’s ROOSTER

Today, I am delighted to bring you the winning entry in the recent Author! Author! Rings True literary competition, Bruce Alford of Mobile, Alabama. In addition to carrying off top honors in Category I: literary fiction, Bruce’s breathtakingly delicate first page and well-constructed 1-page synopsis for ROOSTER also garnered the coveted Author! Author! Award for Expressive Excellence. Well done, Bruce!

As has been the case for all of the winners in this contest, I sat down to discuss this exciting opening and premise with the ever-fabulous Heidi Durrow, author of the intriguing recent literary fiction debut, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky. (The contest was timed to celebrate the paperback release of her novel.) She writes literary fiction, and I edit it, so our appetites were very much whetted.

Especially for this entry. When the judges first clapped eyes upon it, the opening seemed almost eerily apt for this contest: the primary protagonist of Heidi’s marvelous literary fiction debut, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, is half Danish, half African-American. It just goes to show you, campers — no matter how carefully a writer prepares a submission or contest entry, there’s no way that he can control what happens to be on Millicent the agency screener or Mehitabel the contest judge’s mind at the moment she happens to start reading it.

What’s that I hear you muttering, campers? You feel that’s a trifle unjust, that the imperatives of literature require that all manuscript assessments be made from a completely clear mind, as if Millicent and Mehitabel had not read 27 first pages earlier in that sitting? Or perhaps as if they had not previously screened any literary fiction at all, and had not become jaded toward common mistakes?

Fine — you try it. Here are Bruce’s materials as they might appear in a submission packet: page 1, synopsis, author bio. (As always, if you are having trouble seeing the details, try holding down the COMMAND key and hitting + to enlarge the image.) To make this an even fairer test, I shall not comment on the technical aspects at all until after Heidi and I discuss the content.

I’m going to stop you right here: quick, what’s your assessment of this book?

Approaching a new writer’s work with completely fresh eyes is more difficult than it might seem at first blush, isn’t it? Everything you have ever read, from your all-time favorite novel to your high school English literature textbook, contributes to your sense of what is and is not good writing.

So let me simplify the central issue for you: based on that first page alone, would you turn to page 2?

I would certainly read further. On the strength of that, let’s take a peek at the other materials in this packet.

Bruce Alford, a personal trainer, aerobics instructor and a former journalist, has published creative nonfiction and poetry in various literary journals. Alford’s “How to Write a Real Poem” was selected for Special Merit in the 2010 Muriel Craft Bailey Poetry Competition. His book of poems, Terminal Switching (Elk River Review Press), was published in 2007.

For a decade, he worked on drafts of Rooster. The book draws on tragedy in his family. His wife’s brother was missing for a week. Then migrant workers stumbled on his brother-in-law’s body near a tomato field in Louisiana. Over the years, as Alford wrote and re-wrote, he noticed that his relative’s short life and death said much about what being an American meant.

As an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of South Alabama, he teaches a full schedule of classes, including British and American Literature, Poetry Writing and Creative Non-Fiction. He is a reviewer for First Draft, a publication of the Alabama Writers’ Forum.

Does ROOSTER’s plot sound vaguely familiar? It should: it’s Hamlet, cleverly updated and set in an unexpected setting. Many highly successful novels have taken time-honored stories we all know and transformed them. Alice Walker’s THE COLOR PURPLE, for instance, is a retelling of the Ugly Duckling; there have been so many versions of Cinderella that I cannot even begin to enumerate them.

While some writers might have chosen to conceal the eternal nature of the tale, Bruce has done something very interesting here: from the first line of the book, he evokes a fairy tale resonance. There was a girl in Denmark might be the opening of half of the stories in a Hans Christian Andersen storybook. That’s a definite marketing risk — chant it with me now, campers: most professional readers have been trained to regard the passive voice as stylistically weak writing, regardless of how and why it is used — but here, it may well pay off.

Did it? Heidi and I discussed that very question.

Synopsispalooza, Part XIX: a few more thoughts on synopsis length, or, aren’t you glad not to see yet another picture of Hamlet?

long stairway down

Before I launch into today’s post: what if the black thing in the photograph above?

No need to answer right away, of course; as is my wont, I have selected a thematically appropriate image from my snapshot collection. I shall be referring back to it later in this post, never fear. So go ahead and take your time settling on your final answer.

Back to the business at hand. As I sincerely hope is pellucidly clear by this point in Synopsispalooza, at the querying stage, there is no such thing as a standard-length synopsis; it’s the writer’s job to check each individual agency’s website and/or agents’ guide listing for guidance on just how long the synopsis part of send query + synopsis should be. The same holds true for a requested synopsis in a submission packet: if the requesting agent (or, more likely, her query-screener, our old pal Millicent) does not ask for it to be a specific number of pages, it’s incumbent upon you to hie yourself to the agency’s submission guidelines information to make sure that there isn’t a generic preference listed there.

Whatever you do, don’t make the common rookie mistake of assuming that every agency adheres to a single standard — or the even more common first-time conference-goer’s mistake of taking an individual agent’s expressed preference for what he wants to see in query or submission packets for his chosen book category as a rule inviolable for what all agents want. Even a cursory glance through five or ten randomly-selected major agencies’ websites will demonstrate abundantly that, contrary to popular opinion on the writers’ conference circuit, not only do different agencies mean wildly different things by the term synopsis; each has its own very distinct notion of what should and should not be in a query packet.

And don’t even get me started on how much contest rules’ standards for synopsis length and content vary. There’s just no getting around the imperative to seek out and read every set of individual guidelines before you submit any of your writing to a professional reader’s scrutiny, anywhere, anytime.

If that wasn’t enough diversity of expectation to strike fear into the querier or submitter who wants nothing more than to be able to sit down, crank out a single synopsis that is applicable to every conceivable synopsis-requiring situation, and calling it good for a lifetime, what works in one book category’s synopsis may well not work in another. As we have been seeing in practice over the past few days, what shines in a 1-, 2- 3-, or 5-page novel synopsis might not work in a 1-, 3-, or 5-page memoir synopsis, nor will the strategy and structure of a memoir synopsis necessarily make a nonfiction synopsis sound exciting. Then, too, what might fly in a 1- or 2-page synopsis for a multiple-protagonist novel won’t necessarily be beefy enough for a longer synopsis for the same work.

One would have thought, after all of those posts positively crammed to the gills with concrete examples, that I had covered most of the possible synopsis length-related bases, wouldn’t one? Alas, no: as frequent, plaintive comments from readers abundantly illustrate, there is in fact another length problem:

But what if the directions don’t give a specific length? Are you expected to include a 5-pg or the 1-pg version? (I’m assuming the 1-pg is this mysteriously vague “brief synopsis.”)

Could you mention again what each {length of} synopsis is used for? So many agents on my list ask for a “brief synopsis” and I have no idea how many pages “brief” is supposed to be.

I do have a question, though, which you may have already addressed: If submission guidelines don’t state the length of the synopsis, what should I assume? Five pages, or one? I’ve also seen the term, “two-page treatment.”

Is there some sort of epidemic of vagueness suddenly striking agencies’ websites, or are aspiring writers not reading submission guidelines as carefully as they were in olden times? Or is that pernicious rumor going around again, the one that maintains that agents have started deliberately adding misleading guidelines to their websites in the hope of confusing aspiring writers into being afraid to query, and thus reduce the volume of mail Millicent is required to open from bins and bins every day to perhaps a civilized handful?

Oh, yes, one does hear that little gem from time to time. It’s one of the great writerly urban legends, second only to the whopper about every agency in the country’s subscribing to a secret record-keeping service that tells them at a click of a button whether any other agency has already rejected the query in front of them. That way, the legend goes, the most recent agency’s Millicent doesn’t have to read the query at all; she, and her counterparts all over the country, can simply reject it unread. Another popular myth: agencies keep such meticulous records of queries that if an aspiring writer queries, spends five years completely revising the manuscript, then queries again, the agency screener will instantly recognize it as a book they’ve been offered before and reject it accordingly.

Those of us whose job it is to translate between writers and those on the other side of the submission desk spend a lot of time quelling those sorts of fears. No matter how many times we bash them with the stick of truth — down, Cujo! — they rise again to trouble the sleep of aspiring writers.

Even if the questions above were in response to a new set of urban myths or a fad in submission guideline-writing, it would have been tempting to assume that they weren’t: since none of the askers showed the ambiguity in context (by including more than a couple of words they found confusing in quotes, for instance), I’m basically having to guess what they find objectionable about the phrase brief synopsis.

Is the disturbing element the fact that the term is conceptually redundant, because synopses are, by definition, brief? Or are the questioners just miffed because not every set of agency guidelines gives specific length restrictions for synopses?

Experience tells me that it’s almost certainly the latter. How do I know? Because not only am I constantly hearing from writers panicked because they’re not certain that they are following rules correctly — sometimes because the guidelines are genuinely ambiguous, sometimes because they’re simply uncomfortable with not having their work checked for accuracy before they submit it, both completely legitimate reasons to consult a freelance editor — but I hear almost as often from agents and editors who complain that writers these days just can’t seem to follow directions.

Why, there’s a perfectly clear set of guidelines posted on the agency’s website, right? Or isn’t there? Chances are, the complaining agent won’t have checked his own website to double-check; that’s his Millicent’s job.

Actually, while the popularity of this particular question may be new, the essential tension isn’t. Especially since the rise of the Internet, aspiring writers have always wanted far more guidance about what agents and editors expect than the latter tend to take time to provide, and those on the business side of the business believe that anyone seriously interested in writing professionally either knows the ropes already or can easily find out what to do.

Having recently done a virtual tour of a few dozen agency websites, checking out submission requirements, my sense is that they haven’t changed much recently; there are simply more agencies with websites than five years ago. The fact that they display less uniformity of expectations between sites than aspiring writers might like isn’t new — it’s just better-advertised.

Nor was have I noticed a particularly strong trend toward using either the dreaded term brief synopsis or asking for treatments of any length. (The latter is a movie industry term, not a publishing one, though, so it may well pop up in the guidelines of those relatively rare agencies that represent both screenplays and books.) Oh, plenty of agencies did not specify a particular length for the synopsis, but since the 5-page synopsis is so commonly used in agencies and publishing houses, and since agency guide listings have been asking for 3-5 page synopses for decades, everyone would just know to be in that ballpark.

Which is the short answer to all three of the questions above, incidentally: if the guidelines don’t give a firm length, the agency does not have a firm expectation on the subject. As long as it’s in the general ballpark of what’s expected, you’ll be fine. Next question?

I heard that vast collective moan. Who could blame you: just then, I sounded like an agent or editor who was asked at a conference how long a synopsis should be, didn’t I?

Well, not completely, but not merely because I didn’t automatically roll my eyes at the question — which, to save all of you conference-enthusiasts the trouble of trial and error, half the folks on the agents’ and editors’ forum dais would automatically do at this particular question. What they would actually say is, “Read the agency’s submission guidelines,” then call on the next would-be questioner, pleased at having evaded helping out someone who just hadn’t bothered to learn how the game is played.

Which would miss the point of the question entirely, right?

Let me run through the underlying logic here, because being able to place oneself in an agent or editor’s shoes is a really, really useful professional skill for a writer at any stage of her career. As I mentioned above, it’s rare that you’ll meet one who doesn’t believe that a writer’s knowing how agencies work is a pretty good indicator of professionalism; that’s the basic justification for automatically rejecting Dear Agent letters and queries that run longer than a page, right? Clearly, the sender of a Dear Agent letter — or 10-page, single-spaced synopsis — hasn’t bothered to do his homework. A writer who sends a three-page query is not only unlikely to be able to follow directions, they reason — her writing probably isn’t very polished, either.

Unfair to the talented individual who just doesn’t happen to know the ropes yet? Undoubtedly. But statistically provable, based upon the tens of thousands of queries and submissions the average agency receives over the course of a year? Absolutely.

So to them, the ability to follow an agency’s stated submission guidelines is not only a prerequisite for a writer’s getting her work read by an agent — it’s an indicator of how much effort that writer has put into learning the ropes, and thus a pretty good measure of seriousness about getting published. Thus, when a writer stands up at a conference and asks to be told how to write a synopsis, what they tend to hear is, “I haven’t bothered to learn anything about how the industry works. Because I’m lazy, I’m coming to you for a quick answer.”

Is that assumption disrespectful to the questioner? Of course. But doesn’t the habitual terseness and even sometimes downright anger many agents and editors display at being asked such questions make more sense now? They’re not responding to the question so much as the perceived tell-me-a-secret-so-I-don’t-have-to-do-my-homework attitude.

I hear all of you gnashing your teeth. “But Anne,” frustrated queriers and submitters across the English-speaking world wail, “don’t they realize that half of the agencies out there seem to be calling for something different? Or that many of their guidelines are, at best, vague? How am I supposed to know whether what they have in mind by a brief synopsis is 1 page, 3 pages, 5 pages, or 117? What’s next — are they going to ask me to guess what color they’re thinking?’

Before I answer that, take a nice, deep breath. Not that wimpy, shallow one you just took: a real one.

Feeling calmer now? Good, because it’s going to make what I’m about to tell you much, much easier to accept: if they don’t ask for a specific length for the synopsis, it’s because they don’t care how long it is — unless it is wildly out of keeping with professional standards.

See why I wanted your brain nice and oxygenated for that one? Given how many aspiring writers to fall into the trap of believing (inaccurately, as it happens) that submission guidelines are just a bunch of arbitrary tests designed to trick writers, I’m betting that the last paragraph came as a great, big surprise to quite a few of you.

Especially to those of you who have stared at an agency’s website until your eyes blurred with tears, muttering, “What length do they want me to guess? And is the color they have in mind red?”

Seriously, they’re not trying to trick you, and they’re not expecting you to read their minds. These are people who spend their lives nitpicking over comma placement; believe me, if seeing a 4-page synopsis rather than a 3-page synopsis would ruin their days, they’d specify. So here’s a rule of thumb in which you may absolutely place your trust:

If the agency’s guidelines ask for a particular length of synopsis, send one of that length; if they don’t specify, then it’s up to the submitter how long it should be. Just don’t go over 5 pages — or less than 1 full page.

Oh, dear — that last bit sent your arbitrariness-sensors blaring, didn’t it? Actually, this is a matter of aesthetics: as I mentioned earlier in this series, in a synopsis, fuller pages tend to look more intentional to the pros than those less than half-full of text, probably because professional authors are used to having page limits. A synopsis that just sort of peters out 3 lines into page 4 is likely to strike Millicent as a first draft, rather than something tightly edited.

That was catnip to the paranoids out there, wasn’t it? “Aha, Anne — we’ve caught you. If that’s a secret handshake sort of thing, how do I know that the term brief synopsis isn’t some sort of code? How do you know that every agent who uses it doesn’t have a specific length in mind?”

Um, experience? Not to mention a strong understanding of probability.

Think about it: what precisely would be the benefit to these folks in coming up with a secret definition of a term that is on its face deliberately ambiguous? (No, neither sadism nor deep-seated hostility toward writers are adequate answers to that question.) And why on earth would people who spend their lives in cutthroat competition with one another waste their all-too-precious time getting together to conspire on something that couldn’t possibly do them any good?

Look deeply into my eyes and repeat after me: there is no secret definition here. 100% of the demand for standardization of submission guidelines comes from aspiring writers, not agents. No matter how much aspiring writers might like for there to be absolute standards, agencies have different expectations for a lot of parts of the query packet — that’s why they post guidelines.

Again, think about it: if there were actually only one set of expectations governing the entire industry, why would individual agencies bother to post submission guidelines at all?

Trust me, everyone has something different in mind by the term brief synopsis. They each want what they want, period; if they care about a specific length, they will say so up front. If they just want a synopsis to try to find out what the book is about, and they don’t want to get sent a 20-page diatribe, they may well employ the adjective brief.

It isn’t any more complicated than that, honest.

I realize that the explanation above may seem a bit out of character for me — usually, I encourage in-depth analysis, not bottom-lining things. But in my experience, aspiring writers usually ask this sort of question because they believe (sometimes rightly) that their queries and submissions will be rejected on sight if they guess wrong, essentially, in gray areas. They want all of the grayness removed.

That’s understandable, of course. But remember how I showed above how differently folks in the biz sometimes hear writers’ questions? That perfectly legitimate longing to be told precisely what to do tends to be interpreted on the other side of the querying desk as either a lack of confidence or — brace yourselves; this one’s nasty — as a lapse in creativity.

Seem odd? Consider it from an agent’s perspective: writers are constantly going out on interpretive limbs in their manuscripts, right? So why should it be scary to apply their own judgment to something that could be seen as a creative decision, the length of the book’s synopsis?

So when she omits mention of how long the synopsis should be from her guidelines, she doesn’t merely misunderstand the writerly terror of doing something wrong — she doesn’t get why any sane aspiring writer wouldn’t consider the freedom from length restrictions a gift. Queriers’ angst on the subject might even strike her as a trifle arrogant: is this writer really so sure that everything in his query or submission packet is so marvelous that the ONLY reason she might reject it is the length of the synopsis?

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but it’s really quite rare that a rejected submission — or even a query — has only one red flag. There’s a bright flip side to that: if a writer follows all of the actually posted guidelines and adheres to standard format, interpreting a request for a brief synopsis in as 4 pages rather than the 5-page version the agent might secretly have had in mind is not going to make the difference between acceptance and rejection.

95% of the time, the writing and the content determine that. Honest. Don’t squander your valuable energies, as so many aspiring writers do, in obsessing over how best to second-guess Millicent.

Seriously, an aspiring writer’s energy would be better invested in polishing the actual writing, rather than obsessing over whether there’s a secret handshake imbedded in the submission guidelines. Follow what directions are there, use standard manuscript format as your guide where an individual agency’s rules are silent, and accept that agents tend to assume that writers are intelligent people, not psychic ones.

Do your best to follow the guidelines you’re given, then move on. Because, frankly, to a Millicent who works at an agency where no one particularly cares about synopsis length, as long as it isn’t more than 5 pages, the picture above and this

the long way down

look pretty much identical; they’re just two views of the same set of things. But it’s much, much easier to tell from the second one that the black object is the handrail for a descending staircase, isn’t it?

I don’t really need to belabor that analogy further, do I?

Besides, becoming comfortable with ambiguity is great training for working with an agent or an editor: it’s not at all uncommon for an editor to expect an author to revise an entire book based upon just a couple of sentences of commentary, or for an agent to expect a client to structure a submission one way for submission to editor A and another for editor B without having to hold the client’s hand every step of the way.

Try to think about navigating every agency’s slightly different expectations as a dry run for those more glamorous challenges.

I’ll be wrapping up Synopsispalooza next time, thank goodness, and then we can get back to more of our ever-popular in-depth analyses of first pages of manuscripts. Keep me abreast of those new writerly urban legends, everybody, and keep up the good work!

Synopsispalooza, Part XVIII: the story’s not just about that melancholy Dane, is it?

Ophelia's mad scene

All aglow with excitement, writers of multiple-protagonist novels? I sincerely hope so, because last time, we whiled away an autumn Sunday evening discussing an array of strategies for folding spindling mutilating gently compressing a work of literature told from several distinct points of view — or by several different narrators — into (gusty sigh) the 1-page synopsis that so many agency guidelines and contest rules seem to be requiring these days.

And what did the golden rule of not driving yourself crazy in a valiant attempt to squish 400 pages of narrative told from 8 perspectives into 1 page of readable text? Not those panicked 40-pages-boiled-down-to-a-sentence generalizations so popular with first-time synopsizers everywhere, but not even trying to replicate the narrative complexity of the book in a space that scanty. Instead, in a 1-page synopsis for a multiple-perspective book, tell the story of the book, not of the individual protagonists.

I suspect that conclusion did not altogether astonish those of you who had been following the rest of last weekend’s expedited Synopsispalooza posts: as we saw in Saturday morning’s post on 1-, 3-, and 5-page novel synopses, Saturday evening’s dizzying array of memoir synopses, and Sunday morning’s multiple takes on a nonfiction synopsis, a 1- or 2-page synopsis has different goals than its longer counterparts.

Oh, the primary purpose of any query or submission synopsis, regardless of length, is to generate a great longing in our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, to see all or part of the actual manuscript, of course, but in a 1-page synopsis, all a novelist really has space to pull off is to demonstrate the book’s central conflict, the primary characters involved with it, and what they have to gain or lose from it. Preferably entertainingly, and ideally, in a voice and tone similar to that of the book.

Or, to put it in the checklist format we’ve been embracing throughout Synopsispalooza, a 1-page synopsis should:

(1) introduce the major characters and premise(s),

(2) demonstrate the primary conflict(s),

(3) show what’s at stake for the protagonist(s), and

(4) ideally, give some indication of the tone and voice of the book.

Those expectations remain basically the same, regardless of how many protagonists or narrators any given manuscript might happen to be able to boast. It’s not as though a querier, submitter, or contest entrant can shout at Millicent or Mehitabel, “Wait — my manuscript has more narrators than all of those other queriers/submitters/competitors for a blue ribbon in your fine literary contest. It’s only fair to give me more space for my synopsis, since I have more to summarize. About ten times as much should be about right,” and expect her to waive any pre-set length restrictions.

Oh, s/he can shout it until s/he is blue in the face, if s/he wants to give Millicent and Mehitabel a good laugh. That one should have ‘em rolling in the aisles. But the instant they stop chuckling, either will say, “No, but seriously, where’s your 1-page synopsis?”

So just tell the story of your book, as any other novelist would. As we saw last time, a successful 1-page synopsis for a multiple-perspective novel need not — and should not — contain any discussion of the narrative choices at all. To revisit our favorite plotline:

1-page Hamlet

Yes, this 1-page synopsis would work equally well for a single-voiced telling of HAMLET as for one that followed Hamlet, his father, his mother, Ophelia, and Horatio around in the tight third person in alternating chapters, now that you mention it. Or even, since a novel synopsis should always be in the third person, no matter what the narrative voice of the book might be, a version where Ophelia and Hamlet narrate in the first person, Hamlet, Sr. and Gertrude’s perspectives are presented in the third person, and the reader is implicitly drafted into operating as both a castle guard and Greek chorus throughout versions told in the second person plural.

The possibilities are endless. A very flexible document, that 1-page synopsis.

Actually, since the synopsis is not the proper place to be discussing point of view choices, anyway, all of you multiple perspective-mongers could extend the same logic to a 3-, 4-, or 5-page synopsis: tell the book’s story precisely as you would if the manuscript did not feature interestingly different point-of-view choices. Seriously, it could work, and very well, too.

Do those hundreds of pencils, pens, and wadded up pages of synopsis draft flying in my general direction mean that some of you don’t believe me? Okay, let’s try an experiment: take a gander at this 3-page synopsis of the same story — and, as always, if you find you are having trouble making out the individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.

Hamlet-3-page-1

Hamlet 3 page 2

Hamlet 3 page 3

All through? Excellent. Now let me ask you: how does the manuscript described in that synopsis tell the story? Is it written in the tight third person? A distant third person? Is it in the voice of an omniscient narrator, or the voice of one of the characters?

Come on, admit it: it’s possible that the book is told in the voices of several of the characters, isn’t it?

Again, that’s not entirely accidental, since a novel synopsis for any of those narrative choices would need to be written in the third person, rather than the voice(s) of the book, and eschew English Lit-class discussion of protagonists and antagonists, right? In fact, any 3-, 5-, or even 8-page novel synopsis could share essentially the same structure — and definitely shares the same goals.

All together now — a longer synopsis should:

(1) introduce the major characters and premise(s),

(2) demonstrate the primary conflict(s),

(3) show what’s at stake for the protagonist(s),

(4) show the central story arc(s) through BRIEF descriptions of the most important scenes.

(5) show how the plot’s primary conflict(s) is resolved.

(6) ideally, give some indication of the tone and voice of the book.

#6 just put some wind back into some diversity of voice-lovers’ sails, didn’t it? “But Anne,” the full-sailed crow triumphantly, “aren’t you hoist with your own petard? How can I possibly demonstrate the voice of the book in my synopsis when my novel is written in 14 distinctly different voices? Obviously, I’m going to need to reserve some page space to explain that — because, equally obviously, I don’t want my beautifully differentiated array of perspectives to be mistaken for some manuscript told entirely from (ugh!) one point of view.”

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but Millicent expects voice and perspective choices to be a pleasant surprise not revealed to her until she actually starts reading the manuscript. So no matter how cleverly constructed your 14 voices might be — and kudos if you’ve managed to make each distinct; after 2-3, multi-voiced narratives often begin to blur a trifle — the synopsis is not the right place to bring them up.

I feel your pain, though, former crowers: this approach probably sounds an awful lot like being told to ignore all of your protagonists but one. “Here we go again,” you’re probably muttering under your breath, “expecting my book to be just like everybody else’s: the story of an interesting person in an interesting situation. By definition, though, a GOOD multiple-protagonist novel is the story of LOTS of interesting people in LOTS of interesting situations! How can I possibly choose?”

How about by not choosing to privilege one protagonist over the others? Even in a 3- or 5-page synopsis, your best bet is to tell the story of the book, not the various stories of the characters.

Hey, you did it for the 1-page synopsis, right?

Stop wincing; repeating that nifty trick for the higher dives of the longer synopses may not be as hard as you think. For a novel with multiple protagonists to work, it must have an underlying unitary story — necessarily, unless the chapters and sections are a collection of unrelated short stories. (Which would make it a short story collection, not a novel, and it should be queried and submitted as such.) Even if it is told from the point of view of many, many people, there is pretty much always some point of commonality.

That commonality makes far more sense as focus of your synopsis than many characters’ perspectives it takes to tell the story in your book. Strip the story to its basic elements, and talk about that for 3-5 pages. To be absolutely blunt about it, at the synopsis stage, you’ll probably have an easier time pleasing Millicent with a simplified version of a complex storyline, anyway.

Why, you demand in horrified tones? Well, there’s a practical reason — and then there’s a different kind of practical reason.

Let’s take the most straightforward one first: from Millicent’s point of view, once more than a couple of characters have been introduced within those first couple of sentences, new names tend to blur together like extras in a movie. That’s even more likely to happen in a pitch — unless the pitcher makes it absolutely clear right off the bat how all of those names are all tied together, the pitch-hearer’s eyes will begin to glaze over.

How might that affect even a very careful synopsizer of a multiple-protagonist plot? As I mentioned earlier in Synopsispalooza, it’s actually fairly common for novel synopses to talk about several characters in some detail, leaving Millicent to guess which is the main character. As a matter of expedience, then, most experienced Millicents will simply assume that the first character mentioned by name in a synopsis is the protagonist.

Well might you gasp, writers of multiple points of view. If a synopsis for a multiple protagonist novel were written to be purely reflective of the order of events in the plot — the most popular means of structuring a fiction synopsis, always — and the person who happens first to take action on page 1 is not the primary plot-mover in the rest of the book, Millicent is likely to wonder where he’s gone. She’s also, unfortunately, prone to stop reading if the welter of names gets too confusing.

Yes, yes, I know: for writers of character-heavy prose, this may seem grossly unfair, but try to picture what’s going through Millicent’s head just before she makes the decision to move on to the next query or submission packet. She’s been reading packets for hours on end; if all of the named characters from all of those synopses suddenly rushed into her office, the floor would collapse. Then, with all of those proper names and premises swirling around in her head, her next synopsis begins like this:

Hamlet chronological synopsis

Come on, own up: all of those names had your head spinning by the middle of the second paragraph, didn’t they? Even the most open-minded professional reader would be likely to zone out at that point. There’s just too much to remember.

To those of you who are chortling at the notion that remembering twelve names in two paragraphs might strike anyone as being a heavy intellectual burden, I have a question for you: if you didn’t already know what the play was about, which of those 12 characters would you think was the most important to the story, based upon this account?

Not so easy when you’re on the other side of the submission packet, is it? The play’s not called FRANCISCO, GUARD OF ELSINORE, campers — but I think we can all begin to appreciate why a weary-eyed Millicent in her fifth hour of opening query packets might leap to that conclusion.

Still not convinced that a laundry list of plot points is not the best synopsis strategy for a complex narrative like yours? Including that much detail is an incredibly inefficient use of space. Lest you doubt: the full page above takes us only up to midway through Act I, Scene V; HAMLET has five acts.

At that rate of summation, how many pages would the synopsis have to be to contain the whole plot? 15? 20?

No wonder so many writers of multiple POV novels find themselves banging their foreheads against their computer monitors in frustration over requested synopses, shrieking, “5 pages? That’s impossible! I mean, if they allowed me 10, I might have a chance, but…” A completely understandable reaction, if the goal actually were to boil down the entire plot and narrative choices of a 500-page novel down to those 5 pages.

Fortunately, it’s not. While I sympathize heartily with the angst those head-bangers experience, the problem here isn’t really the length of the synopsis — it’s the writer’s insistence upon seeing the plot and the narrative structure as so inextricably interwoven that story cannot be broken out from it. Thus the frustration: the task of summarizing everything in the manuscript is, in fact, an impossible one.

First-time pitchers often set themselves the same mile-high hurdle, by the way. They charge into pitch meetings and tell the story as written in the book, concentrating on each perspective in turn as the agent or editor stares back at them dully, like a bird hypnotized by a snake. And ten minutes later, when the meeting is over, the writers have only gotten to the end of Chapter 4.

Out of 27.

How does this happen? Thinking of the book as an integrated whole incapable of dissection, mostly — that, and not having much practice talking about their work with professionals, or even other writers. I’m perpetually astonished by how often first-time pitchers have never talked about their books out loud before approaching an agent. Not having had the experience of observing just how quickly the average hearer’s eyes glaze over, they think that the proper response to the innocent question, “So, what’s your book about?” is to reel off the entire plot.

And I do mean ENTIRE. By the end of it, an attentive listener would know not only precisely what happened to the protagonist and the antagonist, but the neighbors, the city council, and the chickens at the local petting zoo until the day that all of them died.

Poor strategy, that, in either a pitch or a synopsis. If you ramble on too long in either, the person on the receiving end may well draw some unflattering conclusions about the pacing of your storytelling preferences, if you catch my drift.

Word to the wise: keep it snappy, and emphasize the storyline.

If you are totally at a loss about how to begin to figure out what is essential, enlist the assistance of a sympathetic friend who has not yet read your manuscript. (No fudging on this point, or the exercise won’t work.) Ideally, you’ll want to choose someone with a fine memory and a good sense of humor, as the favor you are about to ask is likely to try her patience.

Find her a comfortable seat, hand her a pad of paper and a pen, and ask her to take notes on the story you are about to tell. Set a kitchen timer for 15 minutes and start talking about your book.

If the time runs out before you have finished with the story, have her tear up her notes before your doubtless watering eyes. (Yes, it’s cruel, but nobody ever said trimming a complex plot was easy, right?) Then reset the timer and start again at the beginning of the book.

Once you have made it all the way through the plot in the allotted time, take a quick glance at her notes, your handy highlighters in hand. Mark every reference to perspective; do the same with any bottom-lining summary statements about characterization along the lines of Bertrand was a busy man. Hand the pad back to your long-suffering friend, grab your own notepad, and ask her to tell the story back to you, leaving out the highlighted parts. Make a note of every major plot point and scene she mentions — and no fair correcting her if she leaves out elements you consider essential.

After you have praised your helpful friend to the skies, promised to heap her with appropriate tokens of your undying gratitude, and sent her home for some well-deserved rest, take a long, hard look at your notes. If someone unfamiliar with the book heard just those bullet points, would he be able to follow the story? If not, what patches would be necessary before he could?

If your list of plot points does not yield an outline that you can use as a structure for a 3-, 4-, or 5-page synopsis, don’t be downhearted — that wasn’t the point of the exercise. The goal here is to help you become comfortable of thinking of your manuscript as a story, not as a collection of words on paper.

Didn’t see that coming, did you? I freely admit it: this is not the kind of practical exercise I usually assign, but it’s essential for anyone tackling the daunting task of writing a synopsis for a multiple-protagonist novel to stop thinking of the book as a collection of disparate characters’ stories. There’s a communal story there somewhere. The more often you tell your story out loud beginning to end — and, I must say it, the more sensitive you become to the points at which your hearer begins to fidget with impatience because you’re going into too much detail — the more prepared you will be to sit down and write a synopsis that focuses upon that story, not the narrative tricks.

I know that it’s counterintuitive, but in a synopsis for a complex plot about complex characters, the fewer the narrative tricks, the better, generally speaking. Remember, yours is almost certainly not going to be the only synopsis that Millicent has read recently, and if she is even remotely backlogged, she will be skimming: drawing your plot in broad strokes is more likely to draw her in than super-intense blocks of minute twists.

One of the simplest ways to steer her in the right direction is to talk about only one or two characters in the opening paragraph, setting the stage, as it were, for the rest of the synopsis to be about those people. Clearly, this may not be a viable solution for a novel about, say, 7 or 8 people, unless there happens to be a scene near the opening of the book where they all appear.

In practice, the opposite is often the case: many, many multiple perspective manuscripts don’t bring all of the protagonists together until the final chapter or scene. Yet another reason that organizing the synopsis to be slavishly reflective of the book’s running order, including each and every plot point, may not be helpful at all. In fact, it might even be harmful to the story’s clarity.

But before any of you run rushing I hasten to add: that doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea to open your synopsis with, Once upon a time, there were 18 protagonists…, either. Or even, in the case of our last example: My version of the Hamlet legend is told from the points of view of five protagonists: Prince Hamlet, his father, his mother, his girlfriend, and his best friend.

Oh, I realize that stating the perspective rules up front might seem like the most straightforward way to minimize the probability of Millicent’s spending the first three pages of your 5-page synopsis waiting for Francisco and Bernardo to dominate the plot once more. I also, from years of teaching pitching and querying classes, am aware that to most writers of multiple-protagonist novels, the point of view choices are the very first thing mentioned when describing their books.

If the number of voices is not the most important fact for Millicent to grasp about the manuscript, this emphasis seems to imply, it’s certainly the most interesting. Actually, from the writer’s point of view, there’s an excellent reason to think of a multiple POV manuscript in this manner: the different perspectives are an integral part of the story being told.

From the writer’s perspective, the structural choices are indeed monumentally important. But from a marketing point of view — which is to say: the view of anybody who has worked at an agency or publishing house, ever — they’re substantially less so.

Don’t believe me? Okay, when’s the last time you walked into a bookstore, buttonholed a clerk, and asked, “Where can I find a good book told from many points of view? I don’t care what it’s about; I just woke up this morning yearning for multiplicity of perspective.”

I thought not. Although if you want to generate a fairly spectacular reaction in a bored clerk on a slow day, you could hardly ask a better question.

Yes, the reader’s experience of the story is going to be inextricably tied up with how it is written — and yes, that would be a problem, if Millicent genuinely expected a 3- or 5-page synopsis to provide her the same experience as reading the book. Fortunately for the sanity of synopsizers everywhere, however, she knows the difference between a 450-page manuscript and a 5-page synopsis of it.

When I say that a good synopsis gives some indication of the voice and tone of the book, I’m not referring to the literal voices that make up a multi-narrator narrative. I’m talking about literary voice: the way of using words, the rhythm, the vocabulary choices, the sentence structures. In a smoothly integrated multi-voiced narrative, the authorial voice carries over into each and every protagonist’s narration, right?

What I’m suggesting, then, is that for the purposes of writing your longer synopsis, you should mentally separate the overall story from how you have chosen to tell it in the book; continuing to think of them as inextricably linked will render writing a compelling overview significantly more difficult. Instead, try creating an new character — an omniscient third-person narrator who stands outside the story, yet knows everything that’s going on.

Why, that’s you, isn’t it? Who better to tell the book’s story to Millicent in the synopsis?

What’s that you’re wailing, campers? That this advice would require you to come up with yet another narrative voice? Why is that problematic, when part of the point of shoving this synopsis into your query or submission packet is to show Millicent that you can write. If you can — and you can, can’t you? — telling the book’s story in your own voice as the novel’s creator, rather than from the POV of any individual character, should be, if not a walk in the park, at least a doable jog several times around the duck pond.

And, honestly, isn’t it a more interesting challenge than either trying to show each protagonist’s initial situation and conflict in succession in such a short amount of page space or just listing the book’s events in chronological order? It’s certainly more likely to show off your writing talents than the usual first-time synopsis-writer’s method of just summarizing everything in the book as bluntly as possible.

I mean, you could conceivably pitch Barbara Kingsolver’s multiple-narrator THE POISONWOOD BIBLE as, “Well, a missionary takes his five daughters and one wife to the middle of Africa. Once they manage to carve out a make-do existence in a culture that none of them really understand, what little security the daughters know is ripped from them, first by their father’s decreasing connection with reality, then by revolution.”

That isn’t a bad summary of the plot, but it doesn’t really give much of a feel for the book, does it? The story is told from the perspectives of the various daughters, mostly, who really could not agree on less and who have very different means of expressing themselves.

And that, really, is the charm of the book. But if you’ll take a gander at Ms. Kingsolver’s website, you’ll see that even she (or, more likely, her publicist) doesn’t mention the number of narrators until she’s already set up the premise. Any guesses why?

Okay, let me ask the question in a manner more relevant to the task at hand: would it make for a strong synopsis tell the story in precisely the order it is laid out in the book, spending perhaps a paragraph on one narrator, then moving on to the next, and so on? We tried that yesterday, recall; it looked a little something like this:

Hamlet 1 p synopsis bad

All of those perspectives are distracting from the story, are they not? Not only is the plethora of characters likely to confuse Millicent, but the structure here is repetitious: in granting each protagonist a separate set-up, the synopsis necessarily revisits the premise of the book over and over again. Is that really the best way to convince Millicent that here is a strong story by a writer worth reading?

Don’t let the innovative structure and perspective choices of your book become a liability in your synopsis; you want your storytelling skills to shine. Instead, highlight the major characters by ramping up the character development. And why not show off your good writing and trenchant insights through the inclusion of unexpected little details here and there that she won’t have seen before?

You’re expecting me to toss off a 5-page synopsis for a multiple-protagonist version of HAMLET abounding in such details and character development, aren’t you? Well, I’m not going to do it — and not merely because this post is running awfully long, even by my standards. After all, those charming little touches, vivid images, and startling insights into the human condition are going to be different for each authorial voice, aren’t they? So I won’t encourage you to copy me; I’m sure your own literary voice is just itching to come out and play.

Next time, we shall once again be discussing synopsis length — and, if I know myself, probably a few more concrete examples as well. Keep up the good work!

Synopsispalooza, Part XVII: you tell your side of the story, Hamlet; I’ll tell mine. Later, perhaps.

sarah-bernhardt_hamlet

Still hanging in there, campers? I hope so, because we’ve been covering a whole lot of material in this expedited Synopsispalooza weekend: various lengths of novel synopsis on Saturday morning, an assortment of memoir synopses that evening, and this morning, different flavors of nonfiction synopsis. This evening, I had planned on blithely tossing off 1-, 3-, and 5-page versions of HAMLET told from multiple perspectives, as an aid to the many, many writers out there struggling with queries and submissions for multiple-protagonist novels — and then I noticed something disturbing.

As I often do when I’m about to revisit a topic, I went back and checked our last substantive Author! Author! discussion of diverse perspective choices. Upon scrolling through last April’s lively discussion of multiple-protagonist narratives (which began here, if you missed it), I realized that I had inadvertently left all of you perspective-switchers with a cliffhanger when I injured my back last spring: I devoted a post to writing a 1-page synopsis for a multiple-protagonist novel, fully intending — and, heaven help us, promising — that I would return to deal with 3- and 5-page synopses on the morrow.

You poor patient souls are still waiting, are you not? I’m so sorry — after my injury, I took a two-week hiatus from blogging, and I completely forgot about finishing the series. Then, to add insult to injury, I’ve been chattering about complex novel synopses under the misconception that those of you who followed last April’s discussion were already conversant with the basic strategy of synopsizing a multiple-protagonist novel.

Why on earth didn’t any of you patient waiters tell me that I had left you hanging? Who knows better than a writer juggling multiple perspectives that no single actor in a drama, however important, has access to the same sets of information that each other actor does?

No matter: I’m going to make it up to you perspective-jugglers, pronto. This post and the next will be entirely about writing a synopsis for a multiple-protagonist novel.

So that those new to the discussion will not have to play catch-up, this evening, with your permission, I would like to revisit the substance of that last post before I went silent, as it honestly does (in my humble opinion, at least) contain some awfully good guidelines for pulling off one of the more difficult tricks in the fiction synopsizer’s repertoire, boiling down a story told from several perspectives into a 1-page synopsis. To render this discussion more relevant to this weekend’s festivities, I shall be both updating it and pulling in examples from our favorite story, HAMLET.

You didn’t expect me to banish the melancholy fellow before the weekend was over, did you?

Let’s leap back into the wonderful world of the 1-page synopsis, then. I would not be going very far out on a limb, I suspect, in saying that virtually every working writer, whether aspiring or established — loathes having to construct synopses, and the tighter the length restriction, the more we hate ‘em. As a group, we just don’t like having to cram our complex plots into such short spaces, and who can blame us? Obviously, someone who believes 382 pages constituted the minimum necessary space to tell a story is not going to much enjoy reducing it to a single page.

Unfortunately, if one intends to be a published writer, particularly one who successfully places more than one manuscript with an agent or editor, there’s just no way around having to sit down and write a synopsis from time to time. The good news is that synopsis-writing is a learned skill, just as query-writing and pitching are. It’s going to be hard until you learn the ropes, but once you’ve been swinging around in the rigging for a while, you’re going to be able to shimmy up to the crow’s nest in no time.

Okay, so maybe that wasn’t the happiest metaphor in the world. But it is rather apt, as the bad news — you knew it was coming, right? — is that even those of us who can toss off a synopsis for an 800-page trilogy in an hour tend to turn pale at the prospect of penning a synopsis for a multiple-protagonist novel. It makes even the most harden synopsizer feel, well, treed.

Why? Well, our usual m.o. involves concentrating upon using the scant space to tell the protagonist’s (singular) story, establishing him as an interesting person in an interesting situation, pursuing interesting goals by overcoming interesting obstacles. Even if you happen to be dealing with a single protagonist, that prospect be quite daunting — but if you have chosen to juggle multiple protagonists, the mere thought of attempting to show each of their learning curves within a 1-page synopsis may well make you feel as if all of the air has been sucked out of your lungs.

Nice, deep breaths, everybody. It’s a tall order, but I assure you, it can be done. The synopsis-writing part, not just returning air to your lungs.

How? By clinging tenaciously to our general rule of thumb for querying a multiple-protagonist novel: the key lies in telling the story of the book, not of the individual protagonists.

Indeed, in a 1-page synopsis, you have no other option. So let’s spend the rest of this post talking about a few strategies for folding a multiple-protagonist novel into a 1-page synopsis. Not all of these will work for every storyline, but they will help you figure out what is and isn’t essential to include — and what will drive you completely insane if you insist upon presenting. Here goes.

1. Stick to the basics.
Let’s face it, a 1-page synopsis is only about three times the length of the average descriptive paragraph in a query letter. Basically, that gives you a paragraph to set up the premise, a paragraph to show how the conflict comes to a climax, and a paragraph to give some indication of how you’re going to resolve the plot.

Not a lot of room for character development, is it? The most you can hope to do in that space is tell the story with aplomb, cramming in enough unusual details to prompt Millicent the agency screener to murmur, “Hey, this story sounds fresh and potentially marketable — and my, is this ever unusually well-written for a single-page synopsis,” right?

To those of you who didn’t answer, “Right, by jingo!” right away: attempting to accomplish more in a single-page synopsis will drive you completely nuts. Reducing the plot to its most basic elements will not only save you a lot of headaches in coming up with a synopsis — it will usually yield more room to add individual flourishes than being more ambitious.

Admittedly, this is a tall order to pull off in a single page, even for a novel with a relatively simple plotline. For a manuscript where the fortunes of several at first seemingly unrelated characters cross and intertwine for hundreds of pages on end, it can seem at first impossible, unless you…

2. Tell the overall story of the book as a unified whole, rather than attempting to keep the various protagonists’ stories distinct.
This suggestion doesn’t come as a very great surprise, does it, at this late point in the weekend? Purely as a matter of space, the more protagonists featured in your manuscript, the more difficulty you may expect to have in cramming all of their stories into 20-odd lines of text. And from Millicent’s perspective, it isn’t really necessary: if her agency asks for a synopsis as short as a single page, it’s a safe bet that they’re not looking for a blow-by-blow of what happens to every major character.

Still not convinced? Okay, step into Millicent’s dainty slippers for a moment and consider which species of 1-page synopsis would be more likely to make her request the manuscript (or, in the case of a synopsis submitted with a partial, the rest of the manuscript). First, consider the common multiple-perspective strategy of turning the synopsis into a laundry list of what parts of the story are told from which characters’ perspectives:

Hamlet 1 p synopsis bad

Poor Will is so busy accounting for all of his narrative perspectives that he does not have room to present much of the plot, does he? This structural choice forces him to cover the same plot elements over and over again. Compare this to the same story told as a single storyline, a smooth, coherent narrative that gives Millicent a sense of the actual plot of the book:

1-page Hamlet

There really is no contest about which presents Shakespeare as the better novelist, is there? That’s no accident: remember, in a 1-page synopsis, the primary goal is not to produce a carbon-copy of the entire book, but to tell what the book is about in a manner that will prompt the reader to want to hear more.

So tell Millicent just that, as clearly as possible: show her what a good storyteller you are by regaling her with an entertaining story, rather than merely listing as many of the events in the book in the order they appear.

In other words: jettison the subplots. However intriguing and beautifully-written they may be, there’s just not room for them in the 1-page synopsis. Trust me, Millicent is not going to think the worse of your book for having to wait until she actually has the manuscript in her hand to find out every nuance of the plot — or, indeed, how many individual perspectives you have chosen to weave together into a beautifully rich and coherent whole.

That last paragraph stirred up as many fears as it calmed, didn’t it? “But Anne,” complexity-lovers everywhere cry out in anguish, “I wrote a complicated book because I feel it is an accurate reflection of the intricacies of real life. I realize that I must be brief in a 1-page synopsis, but I fear that if I stick purely to the basics, I will cut too much. How can I tell what is necessary to include and what is not?

Excellent question, complexity-huggers. The short answer is that in a 1-page synopsis, almost everything should be excluded except for the book’s central conflict, the primary characters involved with it, and what they have to gain or lose from it.

If you still fear that you have trimmed too much, try this classic editors’ trick: write up a basic overview of your storyline, then ask yourself: if a reader had no information about my book other than this synopsis, would the story make sense? Equally important, does the story sound like a good read?

Note, please, that I most emphatically did not suggest that you ask yourself whether the synopsis in your trembling hand was a particularly accurate representation of the narrative as it appears in the manuscript. Remember, what you’re going for here is a recognizable version of the story, not a substitute for reading your manuscript.

Which leads me to suggest…

3. Be open to the possibility that the best way to tell the story in your synopsis may not be the same way you’ve chosen to tell it in the manuscript.
Amazingly, rearranging the running order in the interests of story brevity is something that never even occurs to most struggling synopsizers to try. Yet in a multiple-perspective novel that skips around in time and space, as so many do, or one that contains many flashbacks, telling the overarching story simply and clearly may necessitate setting aside the novel’s actual order of events in favor of reverting to — gasp! — a straightforward chronological presentation of cause and effect.

Chronological order may not be your only option, however: consider organizing by theme, by a dominant plotline, or another structure that will enable you to present your complex story in an entertaining manner on a single page. Opting for clarity may well mean showing the story in logical order, rather than in the order the elements currently appear in the manuscript — yes, even if doing so necessitates leaping over those five chapters’ worth of subplot or ten of closely-observed character development.

Oh, stop hyperventilating. I’m not suggesting revising the book, just making your life easier while you’re trying to synopsize it. If you try to do too much here, you’ll only drive yourself into a Hamlet-like state of indecisive nuttiness: because no version can possibly be complete in this limited amount of space, no over-stuffed option will seem to be right.

For those of you still huffing indignantly into paper bags in a vain attempt to regularize your breathing again: believe me, #3 is in no way a commentary on the way you may have chosen to structure your novel — or, indeed, upon the complexity that tends to characterize the multiple-perspective novel. It’s a purely reflection of the fact that a 1-page synopsis is really, really short.

Besides, achieving clarity in a short piece and maintaining a reader’s interest over the course of several hundred pages can require different strategies. You can accept that, right?

I’m choosing to take that chorus of tearful sniffles for a yes. Let’s move on.

Storyline rearrangement is worth considering even if — brace yourselves; this is going to be an emotionally difficult one — the book itself relies upon not revealing certain facts in order to build suspense. Think about it strategically: if Millicent’s understanding what the story is about is dependent upon learning a piece of information that the reader currently doesn’t receive until page 258, what does a writer gain by not presenting that fact until the end of the synopsis — or not presenting it at all? Not suspense, usually.

And before any of you shoot your hands into the air, eager to assure me that you don’t want to give away your main plot twist in the synopsis, let me remind you that part of purpose of any fiction synopsis is to demonstrate that you can plot a book intriguingly, not just come up with a good premise. If that twist is integral to understanding the plot, it had better be in your synopsis.

But not necessarily in the same place it occupies in the manuscript’s running order. It may lacerate your heartstrings to the utmost to blurt out on line 3 of your synopsis the secret that Protagonist #5 doesn’t know until Chapter 27, but if Protagonists 1-4 know it from page 1, and Protagonists 6-13′s actions are purely motivated by that secret, it may well cut pages and pages of explanation from your synopsis to reveal it in the first paragraph of your 1-page synopsis.

Some of those sniffles have turned into shouts now, haven’t they? “But Anne, I don’t understand. You’ve said that I need to use even a synopsis as short as a single page to demonstrate my fine storytelling skills, but isn’t part of that virtuoso trick showing that I can handle suspense? If my current running order works to build suspense in the book, why should I bother to come up with another way to tell the story for the purposes of a synopsis that no one outside a few agencies and publishing houses will ever see?”

You needn’t bother, if you can manage to relate your storyline entertainingly in the order it appears in the book within a requested synopsis’ length restriction. If your 1-page synopsis effectively builds suspense, then alleviates it, heaven forfend that you should mess with it.

All I’m suggesting is that slavishly reflecting how suspense builds in a manuscript is often not the most effective way of making a story come across as suspenseful in a synopsis, especially a super-short one. Fidelity to running order in synopses is not rewarded, after all — it’s not as though Millicent is going to be screening your manuscript with the synopsis resting at her elbow, so she can check compulsively whether the latter reproduces every plot twist with absolute accuracy, just so she can try to trip you up.

In fact, meticulous cross-checking wouldn’t even serve her self-interest. Do you have any idea how much extra time that kind of comparison would add to her already-rushed screening day?

Instead of worrying about making the synopsis a shrunken replica of the book, concentrate upon making it a compelling road map. Try a couple of different running orders, then ask yourself about each: does this synopsis tell the plot of the book AS a story, building suspense and then relieving it? Do the events appear to follow logically upon one another? Is it clear where the climax falls? Or does it merely list plot events?

Or do those frown lines on your collective forehead indicate that you’re just worried about carving out more space to tell your story? That’s a perfectly reasonable concern. Let’s make a couple of easy cuts.

4. Don’t invest any of your scant page space in talking about narrative structure.
Again, this should sound familiar to those of you who have been following this Synopsispalooza. It’s not merely a waste of valuable sentences to include such English Lit class-type sentiments as the first protagonist is Evelyn, and her antagonist is Benjamin. Nor is it in your best interest to come right out and say, the theme of this book is…

Why? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: just as this kind of language would strike Millicent as odd in a query letter, industry types tend to react to this type of academic-speak as unprofessional in a synopsis.

Again you ask why? Veteran synopsis-writers, pull 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.

Don’t believe me? I’m not entirely surprised: convinced that the proliferation of narrators is the single most interesting and marketable aspect of the novel — not true, if the manuscript is well-written — most perspective-juggling aspiring writers believe, wrongly, that a narrator-by-narrator approach is the only reasonable way to organize a synopsis.

On the page, though, this seldom works well, especially in a 1-page synopsis. Compare the second example above with the following, a synopsis entirely devoted to analyzing the book as a critic might, rather than telling its story:

Hamlet 1 p synopsis bad 2

Not particularly effective at giving Millicent a sense of the overall plot, is it? Because the story is so complex and the individual characters’ perspectives so divergent, the seemingly simple task of setting out each in turn does not even result in an easily-comprehended description of the premise. Heck, the first three perspectives ran so long that our Will was forced to compress his fourth protagonist’s perspective into a partial sentence in the last paragraph.

Minimizing one or more narrators in an attempt to save space is a tactic Millicent and her aunt, Mehitabel the veteran literary contest judge, see all the time in synopses for multiple-protagonist novels, by the way. Protagonist-juggling writers frequently concentrate so hard on making the first-named protagonist bear the burden of the book’s primary premise that they just run out of room to deal with some of the others. In a synopsis that relies for its interest upon a diversity of perspectives, that’s a problem: as we saw above, an uneven presentation of points of view makes some look more important than others.

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 or end up crushing the last two or three into a single sentence at the bottom of the page, 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?”

Actually, you could, in a synopsis this short — which brings me back to another suggestion from earlier in this series:

5. Pick a protagonist and try presenting only that story arc in the 1-page synopsis.
This wouldn’t necessarily be my first choice for synopsizing a multiple-protagonist novel, but it’s just a defensible an option for a 1-page synopsis as for a descriptive paragraph or a pitch. As I pointed out above, the required format doesn’t always leave the humble synopsizer a whole lot of strategic wiggle room.

Concentrate on making it sound like a terrific story. You might even want to try writing a couple of versions, to see which protagonist’s storyline comes across as the best read.

Dishonest? Not at all — unless, of course, the character you ultimately select doesn’t appear in the first 50 pages of the book, or isn’t a major character at all. There’s no law, though, requiring that you give each protagonist equal time in the synopsis. In fact…

6. If you have more than two or three protagonists, don’t even try to introduce all of them in the 1-page synopsis.
Once again, this is a sensible response to an inescapable logistical problem: even if you spent a mere sentence on each of your nine protagonists, that might well up to half a page. And a half-page that looked more like a program for a play than a synopsis at that.

Remember, the goal here is brevity, not completeness, and the last thing you want to do is confuse our Millicent. Which is a very real possibility in a name-heavy synopsis, by the way: the more characters that appear on the page, the harder it will be for a swiftly-skimming pair of eyes to keep track of who is doing what to whom.

Even with all of those potential cuts, is compressing your narrative into a page still seeming like an impossible task? Don’t panic — there’s still one more wrench left in our writer’s tool belt.

7. Consider just making the 1-page synopsis a really strong, vivid introduction to the book’s premise and central conflict, rather than a vague summary of the entire plot.
Again, this wouldn’t be my first choice, even for a 1-page synopsis — I wouldn’t advise starting with this strategy before you’d tried a few of the others — but it is a recognized way of going about it. Not all of us will admit it, but many an agented writer has been known to toss together this kind of synopsis five minutes before a deadline. That’s a very good reason that we might elect to go this route: for the writer who has to throw together a very brief synopsis in a hurry, it’s undeniably quicker to write a pitch (which this style of synopsis is, yes?) than to take the time to make decisions about what is and is not essential to the plot.

Yes, yes, I know: I said quite distinctly farther up in this very post that the most fundamental difference between a descriptive paragraph and a synopsis is that the latter demonstrates the entire story arc. In a very complex plot, however, sketching out even the basic twists in a single page may result in flattening the story, rather than presenting it as a good read.

This can happen, incidentally, even if the synopsis is well-written. Compare, for instance, this limited-scope synopsis (which is neither for a genuinely multi-protagonist novel nor for HAMLET, but bear with me here; these are useful examples):

pride-and-prejudice-synop

with one that covers the plot in more detail:

P&P synop vague

See how easy it is to lose track of what’s going on in that flurry of names and events? (And see, while we’re at it, proof that it is indeed possible to hit the highlights of a complicated plot within a single page? Practice, my dears, practice.) Again, a pitch-style synopsis wouldn’t be my first choice, but for a 1-page synopsis, it is a respectable last-ditch option.

An overstuffed 1-page synopsis often falls prey to another storytelling problem — one that the last example exhibits in spades but the one just before it avoids completely. Did you catch it?

If you instantly leapt to your feet, shouting, “Yes, Anne, I did — the second synopsis presents Elizabeth primarily as being acted-upon, while the first shows her as the primary mover and shaker of the plot!” give yourself seventeen gold stars for the day. (Hey, it’s been a long post.) Over-crammed synopses frequently make protagonists come across as — gasp! — passive.

And we all know how Millicent feels about that, do we not? Can you imagine how easy it would be to present Hamlet’s story as if he never budged an inch on his own steam throughout the entire story?

Because the 1-page synopsis is so short, and multiple-protagonist novels tend to feature so many different actors, the line between the acting and the acted-upon can very easily blur. If there is not a single character who appears to be moving the plot along, the various protagonists can start to seem to be buffeted about by the plot, rather than being the engines that drive it.

How might a savvy submitter side-step that impression? Well, several of the suggestions above might help. As might our last for the day.

8. If your draft synopsis makes one of your protagonists come across as passive, consider minimizing or eliminating that character from the synopsis altogether.
This is a particularly good idea if that protagonist in question happens to be a less prominent one — and yes, most multiple-protagonists do contain some hierarchy. Let’s face it, even in an evenly-structured multi-player narrative, most writers will tend to favor some perspectives over others, or at any rate give certain characters more power to drive the plot.

When in doubt, focus on the protagonist(s) closest to the central conflicts of the book. Please don’t feel as if you’re slighting anyone you cut — many a character who is perfectly charming on the manuscript page, contributing a much-needed alternate perspective, turns out to be distracting in a brief synopsis.

Speaking of distractions, I’m going to sign off for the night before I provide you with any more. Next time, I shall be discussing strategies for folding your many protagonists into 3- and 5-page synopses.

I really do mean it this time, honest. Tune in tomorrow, everybody, and keep up the good work!

Synopsispalooza, Part XIV: to be or not to be — 1, 3, or 5 pages

olivier hamlet

Welcome to this weekend’s expedited Synopsispalooza offerings. For those of you who missed yesterday evening’s teaser, I shall be posting twice per day this weekend (at roughly 10:30 am and 7:30 pm Pacific time) in order to cram as many practical examples of solid synopses of various lengths in front of my readers’ astonished eyes.

Why go to such great lengths? Well, perhaps I’m mistaken, but my bet is that most of you have never seen a professional synopsis before, other than the few fleeting glimpses I’ve given you throughout Synopsispalooza. So while I’ve given you formatting examples, a few 1-pagers, counterexamples, and a whole lot of guidelines, some of you may still be having difficulty picturing the target at which you are shooting.

Amazing how often that’s the case with the pieces of paper commonly tucked into a query or submission packet, isn’t it? The overwhelming majority of queriers have never seen a successful query; a hefty proportion of synopsizers have never clapped eyes upon a professionally-written synopsis; herds and herds of submitters have never been within half a mile of a manuscript in standard format, and a vast multitude of newly-signed writers have absolutely no idea even how to begin to organize an author bio on the page.

And some people wonder why I keep blogging on the basics. I’m not a big fan of guess what color I’m thinking submission standards.

Since my brief for this weekend is to generate a small library of practical examples, contrary to my usual practice, I’m not going to dissect each synopsis immediately after they appear. Instead, I’m going to leave them to you to analyze. In the comments, if you like, or in the privacy of your own head.

I can already feel some of you beginning to panic, but fear not — you already have the tools to analyze these yourself. We’ve just spent 13 posts going over what does and doesn’t work well in a synopsis, right? I’m confident that you are more than capable of figuring out why the various elements in these examples render them effective.

My goal here today is to give you a sense of the scope of storytelling appropriate to three commonly-requested lengths of synopsis. Because deny it as some of you might, I still harbor the sneaking suspicion that there are a whole lot of aspiring writers out there who are mistakenly trying to cram the level of detail appropriate to a 5-page synopsis into a 3- or 1-page synopsis.

That way lies madness, of the O, that this too too solid text would melt, thaw and resolve itself into a shorter synopsis! variety. Trust me, unless you actively long to be complaining that the Everlasting had not fix’d
His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter
, you don’t want to venture down that primrose path.

Besides, the ever-popular cram-it-all-in strategy isn’t likely to produce a successful shorter synopsis. As I’ve pointed out repeatedly throughout this series, the goal of a 1-page synopsis is not the same as a longer one. No one who requests a single-page synopsis seriously expects to see the entire plot summarized in it, as is routinely expected in a 5-page synopsis.

What might those different expectations yield on the synopsis page? Glad you asked; read on.

A quick caveat or two before you do: these are not intended to be the only possible synopses for this particular story; they’re quick-and-dirty stabs at it in a couple of hours while icing my knee. (I overdid this week; I’m reclining on pillows as I write this.) So kindly spare me quibbles about how I could have improved these or made them conform more closely to the text. I already know that once or twice, I presented some of the events out of chronological order, for ease of storytelling.

But guess what? If Millicent the agency screener asks to read your entire manuscript based upon your synopsis, she is not going to call you up to yell at you because they did not match up precisely. Nor will her boss, the agent of your dreams, or a contest judge. In fact, there is literally no point along the road to publication, except perhaps in a writing class, that anyone with the authority to yell at you is at all likely to perform a compare-and-contrast between your synopsis and your manuscript, checking for discrepancies.

Again, absolute literal accuracy is not expected in a synopsis; the pros are aware that plotlines will change slightly with subsequent revisions. What’s important here is presenting the story arc well — and that it comes across as a good story.

I am anticipating that many of you will know the story well enough to catch minor chronological rearrangement, by the way; this is a far more useful exercise if the story being presented is one with which you’re familiar. Besides, I wanted to stick with something in the public domain.

With those broad hints, and the assistance of that moody pick of Sir Larry above, most of you have probably tumbled to it already: you’re about to read several synopses of HAMLET.

Why HAMLET, and not, say, ROMEO AND JULIET, which is a bit better-known in this country? Partially, I chose it because in many ways, it’s the ultimate literary fiction storyline: it’s about a passive guy who sits around thinking about all of the negative things going on in his life and planning that someday he’ll do something about them.

Okay, so that’s a stereotype about literary fiction, but it’s a cliché for a reason. As any Millicent working in a LF-representing agency would happily tell you, far too many would-be LF writers mistakenly believe that the less that happens in a manuscript, the more literary it is.

That’s a misconception: what differentiates LF from other fiction is usually the vocabulary and sentence structure choices; LF assumes a college-educated readership (whereas most mainstream fiction is pitched at about a 10th-grade reading level), and often engages in experimental storytelling practices. Let’s face it, the kinds of sentences that Toni Morrison can make sing most emphatically would not work in other book categories. But I digress.

The other reason to choose HAMLET is that while most of you have probably seen it at least once, I’m betting that very few of you have ever seen it performed live in its entirety. Even the most text-hugging of theatre companies usually cuts an hour or so out of the play. (The major exception: Kenneth Branaugh’s film version does in fact contain every word. You’ll feel as though you’ve spent a month watching it, but there is a lovely Hamlet-Horatio scene that I’ve never seen performed in any other version.)

So I’m synopsizing a story that pretty much everybody has seen or heard synopsized, at least a little. That should prove helpful in understanding what I have chosen to include and exclude in each version.

To head off whining at the pass: yes, the lettering here is rather small and a bit fuzzy at the edges; that’s the nature of the format. To get a clearer view, try holding down the COMMAND key and hitting + repeatedly, to enlarge the image.

But before anybody out there gets the bright idea to steal any of this and turn it in as a term paper, this is copyrighted material, buddy. So you wouldn’t just be cheating; you’d be breaking the law.

So there. I didn’t go to all of this trouble so some con artist could avoid reading a classic. (Hey, I said that writing synopses was easy for a pro, not that it was even remotely enjoyable.)

Caveats completed; time to leap into the fray. Here, for your perusing pleasure, is a 5-page synopsis of The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark:

Hamlet 5 page 1

Hamlet-5-page-2

Hamlet-5-page-3

Hamlet-5-page-41

Hamlet-5-page-5

Pop quiz: I’ve deliberately made a really, really common mistake here, to show you all just how easy it is not to notice when tossing together a synopsis in a hurry. Did anyone catch it?

If you immediately raised your hand and shouted, “You misspelled Yorick’s name!” give yourself a gold star. You wouldn’t believe how often writers misspell the names of their own characters in synopses — or forget that between the time they originally wrote the synopsis for that contest that sounded so promising and when an agent asked for the first 50 pages and a 5-page synopsis, the protagonist’s best friend’s name had changed from Monica to Yvette, because Monica might strike a skimming reader as too similar to Mordred, the villain’s name.

And what’s the cure for that type of gaffe, everyone? Sing out loudly, please: read your synopsis IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD before you send it anywhere, anytime. And do it every single time you are asked to send it out; things change.

The 5-page synopsis was the industry standard for many years, and probably still the one you will be asked to produce after you have signed with an agent. In these decadent days of wildly different submission guidelines across agencies and contests, however, aspiring writers are asked to produce something shorter.

As I believe I have mentioned about 1700 times on the blog at this point, read the guidelines several times over before you submit or enter so much as a syllable. If the requester doesn’t specify how long the synopsis should be, then the length is up to you.

Just keep it under 5 pages. Longer than that, and you’ll just look as though you don’t have any idea how long it should be. If you go less than 5, fill the pages in their entirety (or close to it), so the length will seem intentional.

Tell the entire story in a 3- or 4-page synopsis. If you already have a 5-page version handy, you can often get there by simply lightening the level of detail. Like so:

Hamlet-3-page-1

Hamlet 3 page 2

Hamlet 3 page 3

For a 1- or 2-page synopsis, the goal is different. While it is perfectly acceptable to depict the entire story arc, introducing the major characters, central conflict, and what’s at stake will do very nicely.

Which is to say: don’t even try to cut down a 5-page synopsis into a 1-page; it will only irritate you to the hair-yanking stage. Instead, start fresh:

1-page Hamlet

As you may see, I actually have covered the entire plot here, if a bit lightly. I’ve introduced the major characters and their main conflicts — and no more. I didn’t waste a paragraph describing the castle; I didn’t feel compelled to show what the characters looked like; I avoided incorporating clichés about procrastination. Yet I’ve demonstrated that this story is interesting and holds together.

In other words, I did the writer’s job: I wrote a 1-page overview of the plot. Ta da!

Or rather, I wrote a 1-page synopsis geared toward convincing a literary or mainstream fiction-representing agent to ask to see the manuscript. If I were trying to market HAMLET as, say, a paranormal thriller, I would present it differently.

How differently, you ask? Take a gander. Just to keep things interesting, this time, I’ll do it as a 2-page synopsis:

Hamlet ghost page 1

Hamlet ghost page 2

Reads like quite a different story, does it not? Yet all that was required to pull that off was a slight tone shift, a tighter focus on the grislier aspects of the story, and an increased emphasis on the ghost’s role in the plot, and voilà! Paranormal thriller!

That was rather fun, actually. Want to see the same story as a YA paranormal? Here you go:

YA Hamlet page 1

YA Hamlet page 2

The moral, should you care to know it: although most first-time novelists feel utterly controlled by the length restrictions of a requested synopsis, ultimately, the writer is the one who decides how to present the story. Only you get to choose what elements to include, the tone in which you describe them, and the phrasing that lets Millicent know what kind of book this is.

Makes you feel a bit more powerful, doesn’t it?

Tune in this evening for more empowering examples. Enjoy the control, campers, and keep up the good work!

Synopsispalooza, Part XV: alas, poor Yorick; I knew him in his 1-, 3-, and 5-page versions

hamlet and yorick

Is everyone excited about this weekend’s expedited Synopsispalooza schedule, or, as I like to think of it, the Saturday and Sunday of Synopses? In this morning’s post, I provided you with concrete examples of 5-, 3-, 2-, and 1-page synopses for the same story, so you might see the different level of detail expected in each, as well as how the content selection and tone might be varied to fit the story into a couple of other book categories.

To that noble end, I borrowed from a story most of you were likely to know, a little number called THE TRAGEDY OF HAMLET, PRINCE OF DENMARK, by an up-and-coming writer named William Shakespeare. This evening, I am going to use that same storyline to come up with examples of 1-, 3-, and 5-page synopses for memoir.

Hey, if you weren’t familiar with it before this morning’s post, you’ve certainly seen enough versions of it to be conversant with it now, right?

Why go over memoir synopses in their own post, since a savvy memoirist could use the same storytelling techniques as a novelist does to shape a compelling narrative? (For some tips on how to pull that off, please see my previous Synopsispalooza post on the subject.) Several reasons, actually.

First, as I mentioned in this morning’s post, the vast majority of aspiring writers in general — and, it’s safe to conclude, first-time memoirists in particular — have never seen a professional synopsis for their type of book. As, indeed, I surmised from plaintive-yet-practical questions like the following, posted by intrepid memoirist Pamela Jane on an earlier Synopsispalooza installment:

Is there any place where we can view an successful memoir synopsis? That would be wonderfully helpful.

As an experienced writing teacher, I make bold to interpret requests like this as an indication that I might not have been generating enough practical examples of late. Surely, that alone would make for an excellent second reason to devote an entire post to making up the shortfall. (And don’t worry, nonfiction-synopsizers who do not write memoir: I shall be churning out concrete examples for you tomorrow a.m.)

Third, and perhaps most important for instructive purposes, while memoir synopses share basic formatting and goals with novel synopses — chant them with me now, campers: any synopsis should be in standard manuscript format, and the primary purpose of a query or submission synopsis is not to summarize the book so well that every question is answered, but to prompt Millicent the agency screener to ask to see the manuscript — there are some essential differences. To name but three:

(1) A memoir synopsis should be written in the past tense, whereas a novel synopsis should be written in the present tense.

(2) A memoir synopsis should be written in the first person singular, whereas a novel synopsis should be written in the third person, regardless of the narrative voice of the book.

(3) A memoir synopsis should tell the story of the book in standard manuscript format, without special formatting for the introduction of new characters, whereas a novel synopsis should alert the reader to the first appearance of a character (but only the first) by presenting his name in all capital letters, preferably followed by his age in parentheses.

I suspect that none of those will come as a complete surprise to any of you memoirists out there, but as I’m not entirely sure whether I’ve covered #3 explicitly in a previous Synopsispalooza posts (hey, cut me some slack — do you have any idea how many pages of text it has already run?), let’s talk about it now. Although the capitalization convention is specific to fiction, Millicents (and their contest-judging aunts, Mehitabels) do frequently see memoir synopses with characters introduced as JOAN OF ARC (19). Heck, they occasionally break open submission envelopes to encounter memoirists introducing themselves as I, ARNETTE (7 at the beginning of the story).

That’s neither necessary nor expected in a memoir synopsis. Thus, while a memoir synopsis would mention that Milton Sedgwick sat next to me in my first-grade class. Evidently, he intended to major in yanking my pigtails, a novel synopsis might herald ol’ Milton’s advent in the story with MILTON SEDGWICK (6) devoted our first-grade year to yanking Janelle’s pigtails.

Yes, yes, I know: some of you have probably heard otherwise, but having sold a couple of memoirs, I know whereat I speak. Trust me, both Millicent and Mehitabel may be relied upon to understand that the perpendicular pronoun appearing frequently throughout the memoir synopsis refers to the author/protagonist; neither is at all likely to confuse you with your constantly-weeping track coach or your sociopathic sister just because you haven’t capitalized their names on the synopsis page.

Everybody clear on that? Please chime in with questions, if not; I would hate to have Millicent or Mehitabel perplexed by a half-capitalized set of characters on the synopsis page.

The fourth reason — yes, I’m still justifying, thanks — is the first cousin the first: since very few aspiring writers ever get a chance to take a peek at a professionally-formatted synopsis, some of you might not be aware that under no circumstances should a synopsis of any length be in business format. Or, to put it in terms every user of e-mail can understand, unless an agency’s guidelines, requested materials letter, or contest’s rules specifically ask you to include your synopsis in the body of an e-mail, a synopsis should NEVER be single-spaced, devoid of indentation at the beginning each paragraph, block-justified (i.e., with straight margins on both the left and right sides of the page), or contain a skipped line between paragraphs.

Again, is everybody clear on why that is the case? Not all aspiring writers are: Millicent and Mehitabel shake their heads on a daily basis at synopses formatted as though the writer were unaware (as is, indeed, often the case) that indenting paragraphs is not optional in English prose. Save the non-indented paragraphs and single-spacing for business letters and e-mail, where such barbaric practices belong.

Don’t you tell me that a query letter is a business letter. Part of presenting yourself professional entails adhering to the formatting standards of the industry you are seeking to join. Believe me, the fine folks who work in agencies and publishing houses think of their business as exceptional.

So what should a properly-formatted memoir synopsis look like, whether it will be gracing a query packet, livening up a submission packet, or increasing your chances of winning in a contest entry? A little something like this 5-page synopsis for HAMLET — written, for your educational pleasure, from the melancholy Dane’s own point of view. (As always, if you are having trouble making out the individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key while pressing + to enlarge the image.)

Hamlet memoir 5.1a

Hamlet memoir 5.2

Hamlet memoir 5.3

Hamlet memoir 5.4

Hamlet memoir 5.5

See how easy it would be for Millicent to tell from a quick glance at the first couple of lines that this is a synopsis for a memoir, not a novel? Or for Mehitabel to notice that an entry in the memoir category of her contest had accidentally ended up in the fiction category pile?

While we’re straining our eyeballs, trying to read like these two worthy souls, did anyone catch the gaffe on page 4? (Hint: it’s in the first line of the third full paragraph.)

Spot it now? To Millicent or Mehitabel, it would be fairly obvious what happened here: this synopsis was originally written as if it were for a novel, in the present tense. In the rush to change it over to the proper presentation for a memoir — possibly because the writer had only just learned that the past tense was proper for memoir synopses — one verb got missed.

And what’s the best preventative for that kind of Millicent-annoyer, campers? That’s right: reading your synopsis IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before you stuff it into an envelope or hit the SEND button.

As you may see, a 5-page synopsis (or the rare one that’s even longer) permits the memoirist to tell his story in some fairly complete detail. Like the novel synopsizer, he’s usually better off describing individual scenes within the story than simply trying to summarize huge chunks of activity within just a few quick sentences.

The same principle applies to the 3- or 4-page synopsis. Obviously, though, since there’s less room, Hamlet can describe fewer scenes:
Hamlet memoir 3.1

Hamlet memoir 3.2

Hamlet memoir 3.3

Admittedly, there are a few more summary statements here — the first paragraph contains a couple of lulus — but for the most part, this synopsis is still primarily made up of descriptions of scenes, not just hasty summaries of activity. Cause and effect remain clear. Notice, too, that the sentence structure varies throughout: none of the repetitive X happened and Y happened and Z happened that dog the average mid-length synopsis here.

As we saw in this morning’s post, quite a different strategy is required to pull off the dreaded 1-page synopsis. Here, our boy is going to have to rely pretty heavily on summary statements — but that does not mean specificity need be abandoned altogether.

Hamlet memoir 1 page

Still a pretty gripping yarn, isn’t it? That’s because Hamlet managed to retain the essential story arc, even when forced by length restrictions to jettison most of the scenes upon which his longer synopses rested.

If you’re still having trouble either seeing the difference between these levels of detail and/or are having trouble translating from theory into practice, don’t start out trying to synopsize your own book. Pick a story you know very well and try writing 5-, 3-, and 1-page versions of it. Repeat as often as necessary until you get the hang of it, then go back to your own opus.

Hey, writing a synopsis is a learned skill. What made you think you would be good at it without some practice?

Why start with somebody else’s book, you ask? If you’re not close to the story, it’s often easier to catch its essence — and that goes double if your story actually is your story.

Remember, the key to writing a great memoir synopsis of any length is to treat yourself as the most interesting character in the most interesting story in the world. Tell that story — but don’t leave either why you are fascinating or why your situation is compelling to Millicent or Mehitabel’s imagination. Make sure both show up on the page.

Hey, if Hamlet can compellingly retell the five-hour play of his life in 5-, 3-, and 1-page versions, so can you. Join me tomorrow for some nonfiction synopsis examples, and keep up the good work!

Synopsispalooza, Part XIII: all of the elements your synopsis needs — and none it doesn’t

no dumping sign 2

Today, I’m going to wrap up the synopsis troubleshooting checklist — you didn’t think you would get off with only two posts’ worth of admonishments, did you? Actually, I’m going to be heaping even more synopsis-polishing information upon you than that over the weekend: while it was a teensy bit ambitious of me to think we would polish off Synopsispalooza by Sunday evening, I do think we can polish it off early next week, provided that I post twice per day this weekend.

Stop groaning. Checking in twice per day may not be a picnic, admittedly, but there’s going to be some dandy goodies in this weekend’s pic-i-nic baskets, as Yogi Bear used to say.

What kind of goodies, you ask? After the last few posts’ emphasis upon how to prune and reshape an already-existing synopsis draft, I shall be turning my attention to how to take a plus-sized plot and present it compellingly on the synopsis page. By popular request, I am going to make a j a 5-page, 3-page, and 1-page synopsis for the same book, to help give those of you new to the game a clearer idea of the scope of each.

Yes, that’s right: tomorrow morning, I’m VOLUNTARILY sitting down and writing three separate synopses of the same story. Perhaps more, if I can figure out a way to fit the story into a different book category. Then, tomorrow evening, I shall be performing the same feat for memoir, followed by a Sunday morning command performance of non-memoir nonfiction.

Ah, the things I’m willing to do to convince you fine people that this gets easier with practice. Believe me, when I first started off, writing that many synopses would have taken me months.

So it should be an exciting few days of synopsis-mongering here at Author! Author! To start the weekend off on the right conceptual foot, let’s review the questions we’ve already asked ourselves about any synopsis draft we might happen to have handy.

(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 like a good story? Does it hang together? Does this presentation make me eager to read it?

(4) Does the synopsis tell the plot of the book AS a story, building suspense and then relieving it? Do the events appear to follow logically upon one another? Is it clear where the climax falls? 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, or are some mentioned so quickly that they might start to blur together in the reader’s mind?

(6) If this synopsis is for a novel, is it clear who the protagonist is — and that s/he is the most interesting person in the story?

(7) Does my protagonist/do my protagonists come across as an interesting, unusual person(s) involved in an intriguing, unpredictable, and unusual situation?

(8) Does the synopsis make it plain enough how not only that the protagonist isn’t dull, but how? If a reader had no other information than what’s on the memoir page, would he be aware s/he is 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?

(9) 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?

(10) 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?

(11) In a nonfiction 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?

(12) Does my synopsis make the book sound just like other books currently on the market, or does it come across as original?

(13) If the book is fiction, does my synopsis make the story I’m telling seem plausible?

(14) If my book is nonfiction, does it come across as both plausible and as though I’m a credible source?

Is everyone happy with all of those? More importantly, is everyone’s synopsis happy with all of those? For the sake of getting on with it, I’m going to assume that the answer is a resounding, “By gum, Anne, YES!” But if you have any questions about what I’ve covered so far, please feel free to bring ‘em up in the comments.

Let’s move on, shall we? All of the following apply equally well to a synopsis intended to rest within a query packet, a submission packet, and a contest entry, by the way.

(15) Does the synopsis’ tone and voice echo the tone and voice of the manuscript?

We talked about this a bit in our recent Querypalooza discussion of the importance of the descriptive paragraph in a query letter: it’s extremely helpful if the query and synopsis give some indication of the language and tone of the manuscript, if that’s humanly possible. The vast majority of the time, it is — but you’d never know it to read the average synopsis or query letter.

Why? Well, as we’ve discussed earlier in this series, the overwhelming majority of query, submission, and contest synopses fall into four categories:

a) replicas of back-jacket blurbs, ostensibly more concerned with praising the manuscript than describing it. (As in: this is the best book about mollusks since the bestselling SHELLFISH AND YOU!)

b) generalization-ridden, list-like documents apparently devoted to cramming the greatest amount of plot points into the least possible space. (One day, Janet walks down to the pier, gets kidnapped by pirates, and spends the next twenty-seven years boxing up and shipping out plunder. She gets abandoned on a desert island, builds a tree fort, and makes friends with the local ape population. She gets rescued, moves to Lithuania, and marries the crown prince.)

c) seemingly random collections of characters and events evidently thrown together at the last possible nanosecond, regardless of whether it hangs together as a story. This group is often characterized by the vaguely hysterical tone of the clock-watcher. (Mortimer is a barista. {Insert paragraph about espresso here.} Angela is a pearl diver. {Insert paragraph about diving for pearls here.} Terence is a first-grade teacher. {Insert paragraph about tot-teaching here. Then add on the last line of the 1-page synopsis:} They all unwittingly get embroiled in a bank robbery.)

d) grimly literal presentations of the story, apparently told through the gritted teeth of someone being forced to leap through a pointlessly flaming hoop and pretend he likes it. (Kenneth longs to be a drum major, but so does his archrival, Ernest. Complications ensue. May I get back to my actual writing now?)

All of these popular approaches to synopsis-writing miss the central point of the exercise: whether a synopsis is intended to grace a query packet, a submission, or a contest entry, its primary purpose is to convince the reader that this is a manuscript worth reading — and that the writer is a talented crafter of prose. Neither self-praise, generalities, poor storytelling, or the minimal possible effort are particularly likely to achieve either of those goals.

Instead, why not try telling your story in the voice and vocabulary you use in the manuscript? It tends to give Millicent a stronger sense of the writing in the book. And that’s important in a synopsis, because — well, you know the tune by now, Synopsispalooza faithful: every syllable a writer submits to an agency or contest is a writing sample.

A forest of hands just sprouted up out there. “But Anne,” perplexed synopsis-revisers everywhere protest, “I’m a novelist. If I were a specialist in brevity, I would write short stories or poetry instead. So how can I show off the genuine literary talent that shines so beautifully on a manuscript page in a piece as short as a query, submission, or contest synopsis?

Glad you asked, length-lovers. Here’s a trick o’ the trade.

(16) Does the first couple of paragraphs of my synopsis contain an indelible image that the reader can take away, rendering my work memorable?

Since part of the goal in a synopsis is to convince a reader that the manuscript is fresh, unique, and well-written, wowing her with the first paragraph is essential. So wiggle your way into Millicent’s moccasins and ask yourself: does the opening of the synopsis contain something both unique and memorable? A vivid sensual image, for instance? A surprising juxtaposition of words? A fresh emotional dilemma?

In short, something that she hasn’t already seen — preferably never, but at least not within the hour.

Don’t tell me, please, that there’s something terrific at the bottom of the page, or that if Millie will only have the patience to make it to the middle of page 3, she’ll be hooked. All of that may well be true, but remember, you can’t be sure that Millicent will make it to page 3, or even the bottom of the page.

Why, you exclaim in horror? Long-time readers of this blog, pull out your hymnals and sing along: professional readers tend to stop reading as soon as they’ve reached a conclusion about a submission or contest entry. If a synopsis does not give them a strong reason to keep reading — unexpected plot twists, for instance, or an interesting protagonist in an interesting dilemma — they probably will not read it in its entirety.

This isn’t a matter of laziness, meanness, or a hatred of literature — Millicent has to get through a lot of these in any given workday. So as with a contest entry, screeners tend to pass judgment upon synopses pretty fast. Also, in order to approve a query or submission for continuing on to the next step of the screening process, screeners often need to be able to describe the book in just a sentence or two. Giving Millicent (or a contest judge) a fantastic detail will make that part of her job significantly easier.

Trust me, you want to make her job easier.

Still want to believe that she’ll read on if the writing is good enough? Okay, let’s assume for a moment that she will. (Although 9 times out of 10, she won’t.) Let’s further assume that she likes what she sees when she does read on. Which would you rather be, the synopsizer whose pages prompt Millie to run into her boss’ office and cry, “Wow, I’ve just seen an image I’ve never seen before!” or the one whose synopsis requires two minutes of explanation about why it caught her interest?

Believe me, Millicent isn’t the only one who keeps glancing at her watch. Her boss’ timepiece is set even faster than hers.

What you most emphatically do not want to do — oh, you may think you do, but it’s not in your best interest — is to make your job as a synopsizer easier by simply reusing text from the first chapter of the book. Especially, as synopsis-writers for contests so often do, by recycling the opening paragraph of the book.

Which leads me to…

(17) Does the opening of the synopsis read too like the opening of the book?

This may make some of you giggle — this checklist has been a real laugh riot, hasn’t it? — but you wouldn’t believe how often the first paragraph or two of manuscript are identical to the first paragraph or two of its synopsis. Yes, even in contest entries, where the synopsis and chapter are almost invariably read within the same sitting. Strategically, that’s just not very bright, in a context where a writer is trying to prove within a scant allotment of pages that it’s worthwhile to read his entire book.

Millicent and her ilk tend to regard this as a symptom of authorial laziness, but I suspect that there is usually more to it than that: I think that aspiring writers, having slaved to create a memorable opening for their books, often regard those opening paragraphs as some of their best writing. If it really is so, they reason, why not feature it in a document where it’s likely to do them some good?

If you believe nothing else I tell you today, please believe this: it won’t do you any good. People in the publishing industry tend to remember what they’ve read, especially within the last 15 minutes. Make sure every sentence you submit within a packet is different.

Perhaps this goes without saying, but you should also make sure each sentence is well-written. Oh, you may laugh, but all four of the most popular synopsis-styles we discussed above are conducive to pages on end of simple declarative sentences, each a structural carbon copy of the one before it. And had I mentioned how often synopses read like lists of plot points?

The writing actually does matter here. Which brings us to…

(18) Does this synopsis avoid clichés entirely? Is it also free of jargon and sentences in the passive voice?

Remember, just because a synopsis is short does not mean that Millicent will necessarily read it in its entirety. A synopsis crammed with hackneyed phraseology (like, say, Arleen had come to the end of her rope and was ready to throw in the towel because her heart was broken. Yet straining her last nerve, she gave 110% and made it over the finish line.) is a positive invitation to a busy pro to stop reading. So is a synopsis crammed full of jargon.

Yes, even if that jargon is authentically the way people in your protagonist’s line of work speak. While industry-specific terminology can make dialogue ring true (“Metzenbaum scissors, nurse, stat!”), it isn’t usually an adequate substitute for vivid description in a synopsis. Or in a narrative paragraph in a manuscript, for that matter. Save the jargon for the time when it will have the most effect: not in the synopsis.

And everyone is aware, I hope, that almost universally, the passive voice is considered poor writing by the pros? So if you want to impress Millicent with your writing talent, you should actively eschew sentences like that last one.

(19) Is my synopsis in the present tense and the third person, regardless of the tense and voice of the book itself? For a memoir, is it in the first person and past tense?

Yes, we’ve gone over this before in Synopsispalooza, but it bears repeating. This is one of those secret-handshake things that render a rookie’s submission so apparently different from an experienced writer’s, from Millicent’s perspective: a professional synopsis is ALWAYS in the present tense and third person, unless the book in question is a memoir.

Yes, even if the book being synopsized is written in the first person. Don’t bother to try to fight this one; it’s just a convention of the trade.

(20) If the synopsis is longer than one page, are its pages numbered?

Even after years of reading synopses intended for both submission and contest entry, I remain perennially shocked at how few of them identify either themselves or the author. I can only attribute this pervasive tendency to a faith in the filing systems of literary agencies and volunteer contest-organizing entities that borders on the childlike.

Why do I attribute this to faith, and not to, say, laziness? Well, like everything else in a manuscript or book proposal, the synopsis should not be bound in any way; like pretty much everything else on earth, paper responds to gravity.

Translation: things fall; pages get separated, and some luckless soul (generally, the person under Millicent on the agency’s totem pole, if you can picture that) is charged with the task of reordering the tumbled pages.

Place yourself in that unhappy intern’s Doc Martens for a moment: given the choice between laboriously guessing which page follows which by perusing content, and pitching the whole thing (into what we devoutly hope is the recycling bin, but is probably merely the overloaded wastepaper basket) and moving on to the next task, which would YOU choose?

Okay, so maybe you’re ultra-virtuous. Allow me to rephrase: what if you were Millicent, had 20 other submissions to screen before lunch, and had just scalded your tender tongue on a too-hot latte?

Even if you cried, “Of course I would take the time!” both times, Pollyanna Karenina, don’t rely upon the kindness of strangers. Especially busy ones who have been trained to believe that unnumbered pages are unprofessional in a submission. Make it easy to put the pages back in the proper order.

(21) Does the first page of the synopsis SAY that it’s a synopsis? Does it also list the title of the book, or does it just begin abruptly? And does every page of the synopsis contain the slug line AUTHOR’S LAST NAME/TITLE/SYNOPSIS/#?

Standard format for a synopsis dictates that the title (either all in caps or bolded) is centered at the top of the first page of the synopsis, with “Synopsis” on the line below it. Then skip one double-spaced line, and begin the text of the synopsis.

Having trouble picturing that? Here’s a crib for the visually-minded:

Looking familiar, I hope? And is everyone clear on why those paragraphs absolutely must be indented in order for Millicent to take a gander at it at all?

If it seems a bit silly to tell the nice people who asked you to send a synopsis that what they’ve got in their trembling hands is in fact a synopsis, remember that in a largish agency, the person who requests a submission is often not the person who subsequently reads it. Not the first person, anyway.

Even if it were, from the envelope-opener’s perspective, being expected to recall one request for further materials from — how long? Perhaps a month? — before is tantamount to being asked to guess how many fingers the author is holding up.

In Nebraska, when the guesser is standing in midtown Manhattan. Don’t make ‘em guess.

(22) Is the synopsis absolutely free of errors of any kind? Not just what your word processing software tells you is an error, but an actual error?

Naturally, like every other piece of paper you intend to send anywhere near an agency, you should both spell-check and read the ENTIRETY of your synopsis IN HARD COPY, ALOUD, before you send it anywhere.

Period. No excuses. I’m not listening.

Why double-up on the proofing? 95% of writers — and 99.99998% of non-writers — fall into the trap of thinking that if a document passes muster with their computers’ spelling and grammar checkers, it must therefore be spelled correctly and grammatically sound. That is, alas, generally not true. Word processing programs’ dictionaries are NOTORIOUSLY inaccurate — and often surprisingly outdated. I am fascinated by the fact that mine evidently does not contain any words that relate to the Internet or computer operations.

Don’t believe me? At this point in human history, should I really have had to introduce blogger into my spell-checker’s vocabulary?

And don’t even get a professional editor started on the chronic inadequacies of most word processing programs’ grammar checkers. Mine disapproves of gerunds and semicolons, apparently on general principle, strips necessary accent marks off French words, leaving them obscenely naked, and regularly advises me to use the wrong form of THERE. (If anybody working at Microsoft does not know the ABSOLUTELY IMMUTABLE rules governing when to use THERE, THEIR, AND THEY’RE, I beg you, drop me a comment, and I shall make everything clear.) When I was not looking, it incorrectly changed a word in this very blog post from here to hear.

Get thee behind me, Bill Gates.

Editors like to fantasize about the special circle of hell reserved for those amoral souls who teach our children that the differences between these don’t matter. I’ll spare you the details, but they include the constant din of fingernails on chalkboards, a cozy relationship with angry skunks, and the liberal application of boiling oil to tender parts.

Grammar checkers also typically butcher dialogue, especially if it contains necessary slang. Suffice it to say, most standard word processing spelling and grammar checkers would condemn the entirety of Mark Twain’s opus outright.

My point is, like a therapist who doesn’t listen well enough to give good advice, a poor grammar checker cannot be sufficiently disregarded. Even in the unlikely event that your grammar checker was put together by someone remotely familiar with the English language as she is spoke, you should NEVER rely solely upon what it tells you to do.

Read the manuscript for yourself. And if you’re in doubt on a particular point, look it up. In a well-regarded dictionary, not on the Internet: contrary to popular opinion, most search engines will list both the proper spelling of a word and the most common misspellings. There is no gigantic cosmic English teacher monitoring proper spelling and grammar on the web.

So get up, walk across the room, and pick up a physical dictionary, for heaven’s sake. After so much time spent sitting in front of a monitor, the walk will do you good.

(23) Are all of the proper nouns spelled correctly?

You’re chortling again, are you not? Don’t: this is a perennial agents’ pet peeve, and with good reason. Believe it or not, misspelled cities, states, and even character names are rife in synopses.

Why? Because these are words often omitted from standard spell-checkers — or are entered with a number of possible variations. So unless you have inserted all of the proper nouns in your work into your spell-checker’s memory, it will often overlook the difference between your elegant heroine, Sandy, and that trollop who wandered into your synopsis unbidden, Sandie.

Quadruple-check all character and place names before you tuck that synopsis into an envelope. Seriously.

(24) Does this synopsis read like this manuscript will fit well into its chosen book category?

Again, we discussed this one at length in Querypalooza, so I shan’t go on about it here. Suffice it to say that the last thing any sane querier, submitter, or contest entrant should actively desire a professional reader to murmur over her synopsis is, “Wow, this doesn’t read like a {fill in book category here} at all.”

(25) Does the synopsis read as though I am genuinely excited about this book and eager to market it, or does it read as though I am deeply and justifiably angry that I had to write a synopsis at all?

Yes, I’ve talked about this one before — and as recently as earlier in this post — but it’s often not as visible to the author as it is to a third party. This is a subtlety, a matter of tone rather than of content.

So once more, with feeling: writerly resentment shows up BEAUTIFULLY against the backdrop of a synopsis, even ones that do not breathe an overt word about marketing. The vast majority of synopses (particularly for novels) simply scream that their authors regarded the writing of them as tiresome busywork instituted by the industry to satisfy some sick, sadistic whim prevalent amongst agents, a hoop through which they enjoy seeing all of the doggies jump.

If you have even the vaguest suspicion that your synopsis — or, indeed, any of your marketing materials — may give off a even a whiff of that attitude, hand it to someone you trust for a second opinion.

Made it through all of the questions above? After you have tinkered with the synopsis until you are happy with all of your answers, set your synopsis aside. Stop fooling with it.

Seriously, there is such a thing as too much tinkering: make it sound good, and leave it at that. Then, just before you send it out, read it again (IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD, of course), and ask yourself a final question:

(26) Does my synopsis support the image of the book I want the requesting agent or editor to see? Would it be worth my while to modify it slightly in order to match more closely to what I told this sterling individual my book was about?

”Wait!” I hear some sharp readers out there cry. “Is Anne saying that it’s sometimes a good idea to tailor the synopsis to the particular agent or editor? Catch me — I’m about to faint with surprise!”

Well caught, ironic fainters. Yes, I am the queen of specialized submission packets. Down with genericism, I say!

It’s just common sense, really. If you heard an agent or editor expresses a strong personal preference for a particular theme or style in her speech at an agents’ and editors’ forum or during a pitch meeting, isn’t it just common sense to tweak your already-existing synopsis so it will appeal to those specific likes? If your dream agent let slip in your meeting that she was really intrigued by a particular aspect of your story, doesn’t it make sense to play that part up a little in the synopsis?

A word of warning about pursuing this route: do NOT attempt it unless you have already written a general synopsis with which you are pleased and have saved it as a separate document. Save your modified synopsis as its own document, and think very carefully before you send it out to anyone but the agent or editor who expressed the opinions in question.

Why? Well, contrary to popular belief amongst aspiring writers and as I have been pointing out for several years now in this very forum, agents and editors are not a monolithic entity with a single collective opinion on what is good and what is bad writing. They are individuals, with individual tastes that vary wildly, sometimes even moment to moment — and certainly over the course of a career.

Think about it: was your favorite book when you were 13 also your favorite book when you were 30? Neither was any given agent’s.

And isn’t your literary opinion rather different on the day you learned that you were being promoted at work and the day that your cat died? Or even the moment after someone complimented your shirt (that color brings out your eyes, you know, and have you lost a little weight?), as opposed to the moment after you spilled half a cup of scalding coffee on it?

Again, what’s true for you is true for any given agent, editor, or screener: a LOT of factors can play into whether they like the pages sitting in front of them right now. As the old international relations truism goes, where you stand depends upon where you sit.

Bear this in mind when you are incorporating feedback into your synopsis — or, indeed, any of your work. Just because one agent (or an editor, or a contest feedback form, or every last member of your writers’ group, or the Wizard of Oz) has advised you to tweak your story this way or that, it doesn’t necessarily mean everyone in the industry will greet that tweak rapturously.

Use your judgment: it’s your book you’re synopsizing, after all. But by all means, if you can modify your synopsis for the SPECIFIC eyes of the individual who expressed the particular opinion in question, do it with my blessings.

Next time, we’re going to tackle the entire proverbial ball of wax: starting with a whole story, boiling it down to its essentials, and serving up the result on the synopsis page. Tune in tomorrow, campers, and keep up the good work!

Synopsispalooza, Part XII: burning the candle at both ends. Or even in the middle.

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Hey, we’ve reached a milestone this evening, campers: this is my 1300th post here at Author! Author! Should any of you have been stunned by the bewildering array of categories on the archive list located on the bottom right-hand side of this page, there you have your answer.

I had planned something special to mark the occasion, but then, I keep waking up each morning, murmuring, “Yes, today is going to be my day for gloating about Mario Vargas Llosa’s finally winning the Nobel Prize in Literature on the blog,” because, really, the guy’s been on the short list for my entire adult life. Then, too, it’s honestly a very, very big deal for a comic novelist to grab the prize — offhand, I can’t think of a remotely funny winner since John Steinbeck, and his humor was not particularly consistent. But then I look over my plans for Synopsispalooza, weigh them against my ever-variable post-crash energy levels, and put it off another day. But rest assured, I shall indeed be talking about Vargas Llosa’s work here shortly.

In the meantime, brace yourselves, campers: today is going to be a long one, if my energy holds out. (Not a foregone conclusion, I’m afraid; this afternoon’s noble experiment in city walking has caused my knee to resemble a relief map of Madagascar.) I missed a few days of posting over the last week, and I honestly would like to try to wrap up Synopsispalooza this coming weekend, so we may get back to more close textual analysis.

At least until Authorbiopalooza. And Formatpalooza. There’s a lot on the agenda this fall.

So let’s get right back to our synopsis troubleshooting checklist. For those of you joining us mid-series, this checklist is intended less to help any aspiring writer who might happen to stumble upon it to create a jim-dandy synopsis from scratch, but to improve an already-existing draft. So haul out those highlighter pens, print up a copy of your synopsis, and we’ll dive right into the fray.

Lest those of you not currently in the throes of updating your synopsis should turn away at this point, I hasten to add: of course, the description already-existing draft could logically be applied to a synopsis that you polished off ten minutes ago as easily as one you’ve been using for the last year. And these questions would be quite useful even if you have only just begun thinking about your synopsis, too.

So wherever you are in the process, please feel free to jump right in. My goal here is to encourage you to regard synopsis-writing as an opportunity to encapsulate your writerly brilliance in capsule form, rather than treating it 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.

Okay, so the darned thing is still probably going to be tedious and annoying to produce, but addressing these the following issues will help it show off your talent more effectively. Before I suggest anything new, however, let’s take a gander at the points we’ve hit so far:

(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 like a good story? Does it hang together? Does this presentation make me eager to read it?

(4) Does the synopsis tell the plot of the book AS a story, building suspense and then relieving it? Do the events appear to follow logically upon one another? Is it clear where the climax falls? 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, or are some mentioned so quickly that they might start to blur together in the reader’s mind?

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 comfortable with the underlying logic for suggesting such darned fool things?

I’m electing to take all of that silence out there in the ether as a resounding, “By jingo, 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 in the comments; folks have been a trifle quiet of late.) Let’s move on.

(6) If this synopsis is for a novel, is it clear who the protagonist is — and that s/he is the most interesting person in the story?

Hey, don’t laugh — fiction synopses frequently 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 is a bit hard to avoid, 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.

Ditto, surprisingly, for memoir synopses — but of that, more follows anon.

And no, in answer to what some of my more literal-minded readers just thought very loudly indeed, you should NOT clarify this point in either a fiction or memoir synopsis by the ham-handed inclusion of such English class-type sentences as The protagonist is Mildred, and the antagonist is Brooke, 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: 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: in a query or synopsis, the perspective choices are not relevant; let the manuscript demonstrate those choices. In your synopsis or descriptive paragraph, tell the story of the book, not of a particular character or array of characters.

And before anybody points it out: yes, I’m aware that this approach might cause a conscientious writer to run afoul of Point #6 for a paragraph or two, but honestly, the multiple-protagonist format doesn’t leave the humble synopsizer a whole lot of strategic wiggle room. Concentrate on making the whole sound like a terrific story — and the characters sound fascinating.

(7) Does my protagonist/do my protagonists come across as an interesting, unusual person(s) involved in an intriguing, unpredictable, and unusual situation?

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.”

Trust me, you don’t want Millicent to have to take an extra a sip or two from one of her favorite too-hot lattes to make it through your synopsis. Contrary to popular opinion amongst enthusiasts of slice-of-life literature, if a story sounds mundane on the synopsis page, particularly at the query packet stage, most Millicents are not going to be eager to read the book.

Everyman may be a popular protagonist, but super-ordinariness has been the death knell for many a novel synopsis. 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!”

Before any of you get huffy at the prospect of soft-selling your aim of holding, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature, listen: in the current market, no agent, no matter how talented, is going to be able to sell a novel to an editor 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.

Besides, 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. I also feel another set of questions coming on.

(8) Does the synopsis make it plain enough how not only that the protagonist isn’t dull, but how? If a reader had no other information than what’s on the memoir page, would he be aware s/he is 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?

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? Better still, how can you make those traits apparent through unusual phrasing, unexpected plot twists, and juicy details Millicent isn’t likely to have seen in the 9 of the last 14 synopses she read?

Pulling this off can be especially challenging for are fond of slice-of-life writing. The problem is, book-length slice-of-life fiction is usually 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 book, 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 and submissions 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: instead of squandering valuable synopsis space on making the case that your protagonist is Everyman, concentrate on the ways that he isn’t just like the people you expect to be reading the book. Trust the manuscript to delight the reader with your trenchant insights into everyday life, to elicit the gasp of recognition; the synopsis is not the proper venue for demonstrating your capacity for gleaning such meaning from the mundane.

In a synopsis, your job is to make your protagonist sound interesting enough to justify having an entire book devoted to his escapades. To put it more prescriptively, emphasize what is different, fresh, and unusual about your protagonist and his/her dilemmas.

(9) 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? Yet you would have thought that the identity of a memoir’s protagonist would be awfully hard to hide for long, wouldn’t you?

In a manuscript, yes, but on the synopsis page, no. I’ve seen many a synopsis tell the overall story of a memoir well, but leave the reader guessing which member of the five-person family, thirty-person ball team, or twenty-member presidential cabinet is the central figure of the story and author.

How does this happen? All too often, memoirists simply follow general guidelines for synopsis-writing — it should be written in the third person, regardless of the narrative voice of the manuscript; it should be in the past tense, etc. — assuming, wrongly, that anything labeled synopsis should be more or less identical. But a memoir synopsis should always be written in the first person and the past tense, leaving no doubt whatsoever whose story is being told and by whom.

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 the events in them really happened. Or so I surmise from how often synopses, queries, and pitches include an insistent refrain of “But it’s a true story! It really happened!”

As any memoir-representing agent could tell you, real-life events are not always interesting on the page. In fact, s/he is very likely to tell you that s/he sees very dull-sounding memoir synopses all the time.

Why? Partially, the synopsis format: they tend to abound in generalizations and summaries of action, rather than intriguing details and sketched-out scenes. Verbal anecdotes often share these defects, sacrificing storytelling for brevity. The combined effect can be very flattening: just as an inherently exciting plot may be scuttled by an uninspired telling in a manuscript, an over-summarized account of even the most thrilling real-life event can sound pretty dull in a synopsis.

Thus, the memoirist has an additional goal in her synopsis: 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. What are the reasons a novel-reader would be delighted to follow you throughout a 500-page plotline? Emphasize those aspects of your character and story in the synopsis.

Having trouble casting yourself as the hero/ine of a novel, even temporarily? Here’s a good trick for making any protagonist come across as more complex on the synopsis page.

(10) 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?

Or, 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 uncannily sensitive am-I-about-to-be-bored? sensors, the prospect of conflict usually makes her ooh-this-is-interesting antennae twirl around in circles.

So when in doubt, ratchet up the conflict on the synopsis page — and make it clear that the protagonist is vitally interested in the outcome. Nothing flattens a reader’s perception of conflict like the impression that the outcome doesn’t matter very much to the characters.

Trust me on this one. In Millicent’s mind, conflict = interesting. She probably works for an agent who goes around spouting the old industry truism, a good manuscript has conflict on every single page.

Yes, yes, I know: that’s debatable. But if Millicent rejects your query packet or submission at the synopsis-reading stage, that’s a debate you’re never going to get to have with the agent of your dreams.

(11) In a nonfiction 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. Remember, the goal of the synopsis is to get Millicent, Maury, and/or Mehitabel excited enough to want to read the manuscript.

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?

Not just matter in general, but to readers already buying books on similar topics. Which leads me to…

(12) 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 (virtually all of them do limit themselves to just a few types), you would expect them to receive many submissions within their areas of specialty, right? A Millicent at an agency that represents a lot of mysteries would probably not be reading synopses of SF books, NF books, romances, and westerns, mixed in with only a few mysteries. Instead, that Millie is probably reading 800 mystery synopses per week.

Translation: she sees a whole lot of plot repetition in any given pay period.

Unfortunately, most aspiring writers do not pause to consider that probability before blithely sending off their query or submission packets. 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!” conference-goers everywhere protest. “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 on the bestseller lists right 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 without highly-specialized psychic abilities 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. Just make your book sound original, okay?

Some of you are pouting at that last bit, aren’t you? “But Anne,” inveterate bestseller-readers point out, “I’ve done my homework; I’ve gone to conferences. The same authors sell well year after year, so I’ve written a manuscript that’s more or less in the style of (fill in bestseller here), except mine is far, far better. Why wouldn’t that excite any market-minded agent?”

Your question made me smile, oh pouters: there was a good joke on the subject 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 at this point in literary history, you’re better off trying to pitch LITTLE WOMEN MEETS GODZILLA than LITTLE WOMEN itself, really.

Don’t believe me? Have you checked out the sales figures on PRIDE & PREJUDICE & ZOMBIES?

The fact is, a too-close imitation of a bestseller is always going to strike Millicent as rather derivative of the bestseller — and doubly so if the bestseller in question happens to be a classic. 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 PRIDE & PREJUDICE & ZOMBIES and 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.

One big caveat, however: please bear in mind that Millicent (like Maury and Mehitabel) tends to make a strong distinction between original and weird, as well as between plausible and implausible. Which brings me to…

(13) If the book is fiction, does my synopsis make the story I’m telling seem plausible?

I could sense some of the novelists out there rolling their eyes before I even finished typing that one. “Um, Anne?” a few of you scoffed. “What part of FICTION don’t you understand? By definition, fiction writers make things up.”

Quite true, oh scoffers, but for even the most outrageously fantastic storyline to hang together, it must be plausible — at least in the sense that the characters would actually do and say the things they do and say on the page. If the internal logic of the premise doesn’t seem to be applied consistently in the synopsis (or in the manuscript, for that matter), Millicent is likely to pass.

Yes, even if the synopsis in question happens to be for a novel where obeying the law of gravity is merely optional and every other character has a couple of extra arms, toes, or senses. If a plot doesn’t seem to be following its own rules, it’s hard for the reader to remain involved in the story.

Why? Well, when a reader is swept up in a drama (or a comedy, for that matter), she engages in behavior that Aristotle liked to call the willing suspension of disbelief. Basically, she enters into a tacit understanding with the author: the rules that govern the world of the book, no matter how wacky or impractical they may be for the reader’s world, are precisely what the narrative says they are. Most of the time, as long as the narrative abides by them, the reader will be willing to go along for the ride.

Note that as long as clause. If a narrative violates its own rules, the agreement is violated: in thinking, “Wait, that doesn’t make sense,” the reader is knocked out of the story.

(Ditto, incidentally, when a first-person or tight third-person narrative suddenly switches, however momentarily, from the protagonist’s perspective to something that the protagonist could not possibly perceive. That’s usually an automatic-rejection offense for Millicent. But perspective-surfing is a subject for another blog post when I finally polish off this run of series on practicalities and get back to craft issues.)

Millicents are notoriously sensitive to being pulled out of a story by a plausibility problem. So are their bosses, the agents who employ them to reject as high a percentage of submissions as possible, and the editors to whom those bosses sell books.

I just felt some of you go pale. “How sensitive?” those of you who have submitted recently enough that you haven’t yet heard back squeak in unison. “Is it one of those automatic-rejection reasons you mentioned up there in the parentheses when you thought nobody was looking? I’d really have to do it a lot to annoy her, right?”

Got the smelling salts handy? In a manuscript submission, a single instance is often an automatic rejection offense.

Yes, even in a synopsis.

Why? Well, any gaffe that breaks the reader’s suspension of disbelief is, ultimately, a storytelling problem. So it really isn’t all that surprising that Millicent’s first inclination upon being knocked out of the story is to mutter, “Oh, this writer isn’t a very consistent storyteller.”

Okay, so this may be an unfairly broad conclusion to draw from a line or two in a synopsis — especially when, as we’ve discussed earlier in this series, many, many talented aspiring writers simply throw together their synopses at the last possible minute prior to sealing the submission or contest entry envelope. But lest we forget, Millicents are in the business of making snap judgments; otherwise, they couldn’t even begin to get through the hundreds of queries and submissions they see every week.

Aren’t you glad you had those smelling salts handy?

If you’re not absolutely certain that your synopsis is internally consistent enough to pass the plausibility test, have someone else (NOT someone who has read the manuscript, ideally) read it and tell the story back to you. Better yet, have someone else read it, tell the story to a third party, and have the third party try to reproduce it for you AND a fourth person.

Why such a mob? You may not catch the “Hey, wait a minute!” moments, but chances are that at least one of #2-4 will. Listen carefully to any follow-up questions your experimental victims may have; address them in the synopsis, so that Millicent will not be moved to ask them of the ambient air at the screening stage.

Pay particular attention to any spot in the synopsis that provokes an unexpected giggle. Few narrative gaffes provoke bad laughter — the giggles that spring from readers or audience at a spot where the writer did not intend for them to laugh — as readily as deviations from the internal logic of a story.

This isn’t a bad fix-it strategy for nonfiction, either, especially for memoir. Which brings me to…

(14) If my book is nonfiction, does it come across as both plausible and as though I’m a credible source?

Again, not self-evident. Too often, nonfiction writers in general and memoirists in particular assume that just because they are recounting true events, their narratives will be inherently plausible. Unfortunately, it’s just not true.

Just as a novel’s plausibility depends upon the narrative’s consistently following its story’s internal logic, a nonfiction account or argument needs to hang together, with no missing steps. In a manuscript, plausibility problems tend to arise from incomplete set-ups and telling stories out of chronological order.

Where nonfiction synopses usually fall down on the job is by providing insufficient background — prompting questions like, “Why did this happen?” Again, you will be much, much better off if you can solicit such questions from someone other than Millicent, so you may address them before she reads your synopsis.

My, that was a lot to absorb in a single post, wasn’t it? Lucky that I kept the laureate-pushing to a minimum, eh? Keep up the good work!