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!

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 XVI: just what went on in that castle, anyway? Inquiring minds want to know.

hamlet ghost drawinghamlet ghost drawing2
hamlet ghost drawing3hamlet ghost drawing4
hamlet ghost drawing5hamlet ghost drawing6

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!

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 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 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!

Synopsispalooza, Part XI: an all-time high for the Peanut Butter and Jelly Index, or, time to haul out those highlighting pens again!

Is everybody comfortable? Would you like to grab yourself a cup of tea, a cookie or two, perhaps a nice sandwich? Before we resume our ongoing discussion of synopsis troubleshooting, I need to talk to you about something serious, so you might want to have sustenance readily to hand, to fortify you.

Before any of you start to panic, let me hasten to add: please note that I didn’t send you to the liquor cabinet to pour yourself a stiff one, or the medicine cabinet to dig out your heart medication. The last thing I want to do is to add to the general air of gloom pervading pretty much every source of information in the continental U.S. at the moment, but I’d like to put a bug or two in your ear — who ever came up with that revolting expression, I wonder, and why did anyone think to perpetuate it? — about what hard economic times tend to do to the publishing industry.

Don’t worry, though: I come not to bury the industry, but to praise it, at least indirectly.

As pretty much everyone who has heard a Manhattan-based agent or editor speak within the last couple of years is already aware, the mainstream publishers have been rather nervous about the economy for quite some time now. Rumor has it that it’s rendered some already risk-averse people even more risk-averse. What does that mean translated out of economic-speak? It’s harder than ever to convince an editorial committee to take a chance on an unusual book — or an untried author.

Not that it’s ever been a particularly easy sell, of course. But one does hear a great deal of sighing these days, accompanied by exclamations of, “Oh, I could have sold that five years ago.”

What’s the rationale behind this increased difficulty, you ask? Well, when the average Joe (he of the much-vaunted six-pack, presumably) faces economic uncertainty — or, for that matter, the certainty of a lost job — he tends to slow his purchase of non-necessities. Apparently, to those benighted souls not hopelessly enslaved to the power of the written word, books fall into the non-essential category.

I know; weird. But there’s no accounting for taste.

What does sell well to ol’ Joe in uncertain times? In the U.S., peanut butter and jelly, cereal, ramen, and other inexpensive comfort foods. In fact, PB & J sales are such a good indicator of consumers’ feelings about the economy that trend-watchers keep an eye on ‘em.

Seriously — it’s called the Peanut Butter Index. (One also hears about it as the PB&J Index, the Oreo Index, or the Mac & Cheese Index, but these terms all refer to the same basic trend.) It may sound a bit silly, but I assure you, folks in the publishing industry take it very seriously: when the PBI is high, the prevailing wisdom goes, new book sales tend to be low.

Library card usage, interestingly, tends to rise. (Hey, readers are smart. And good sandwich-makers, apparently.)

What does a high PBI mean for the average aspiring writer, you ask? Well, typically, the difficulty of landing an agent increases, especially for writers of books that do not easily fit into the traditional big-sales categories. This has absolutely nothing to do with anyone concerned wanting to be mean to the aspiring: agents, bless their ever-picky hearts, don’t like to take on books that they aren’t relatively certain they can sell in the current literary market.

The second reason may surprise you a little: submissions to agencies and publishing houses have historically rises fairly dramatically in tough economic times. (You didn’t think the Great Depression’s literary richness was a coincidence, did you?)

Why? Well, as you may have noticed in chatting at cocktail parties with people who say they want to write but produce a million and twelve reasons why they haven’t been able to finish a book/screenplay/that e-mail they’ve been meaning to respond to for months, authorship is not an uncommon Plan B for people who don’t write habitually. And, let’s face it, as hobbies go, writing is a relatively inexpensive one, at least until one starts to query and submit.

Human nature in all of its hopeful glory: when ambient circumstances block the road leading toward one dream, the intrepid soul often seeks out another. Kind of sweet, isn’t it?

Yes, but it can also be problematic for the habitual writer, because I can tell you now, in the months to come, agencies and small publishers are going to see an upsurge in queries and submissions. Which means, unfortunately, that Millicent the agency screener is almost certainly going to find even higher piles of reading material on her desk.

Those of you who have been visiting Author! Author! for a while are probably already cringing, aren’t you? Let’s let the whole class in on why: when Millicent has more to read, she must perforce scan each query and/or submission faster. Her rejection rates may be expected to rise accordingly.

Why? Time, my dears, time. It’s not as though time expands when she has more to read each day — or as if her agency is likely to increase the number of writers it intends to sign this year just because the absolute number of queries rises.

I’m telling you this not to depress you — honest! — but so that you may adjust your expectations and plans accordingly. In the months to come, it’s probably reasonable to expect Millicent’s critical eye to be just a little sharper than normal, her boss to be just a little less eager to fall in love with a new author, and turn-around times in general to be just a little bit lengthier.

None of which will have anything to do with you personally, the quality of your manuscript, or your potential as a writer. Remind yourself of that early and often, please. I would also strenuously suggest that those of you who were considering sending out a raft of queries anytime in the near future (or have been tinkering with a promised submission in an effort to get it perfect) to plan on mailing them out sooner rather than later.

I know — it may seem like poor timing to submit during a sharp stock market decline, but if the PBI remains high for the rest of the year, the always heavy post-New Year query and submission avalanche will probably be of epic proportions. (It certainly was last year.) Not to send you into a flurry of panic, but if you could manage to get those queries and submissions out before Thanksgiving, you’ll probably be even better off. The publishing industry tends to slow to a crawl during the winter holidays, anyway, so why not beat the proverbial Christmas rush?

There’s something else you can do to improve your chances of being one of the lucky few who will manage to get their books published within the next couple of years: even in the face of grim economic news, don’t stop buying books in your book category.

Ideally, books that share some significant characteristics with what you write so well. Written by first-time authors, if you can manage it, or at least penned by those who are still walking amongst the living. And no, checking them out from the library will not do, alas.

This advice may sound flippant, but listen: agents and editors are smart, too; they keep a close eye on trends. We’ve also seen how even a single bestseller in a previously lax category can suddenly send the pros scrambling to find similar manuscripts — think about what COLD MOUNTAIN did for historical fiction, for instance, or BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY for chick lit.

By the same token, when new sales decline in any book category, everyone who writes that type of book suffers.

It’s sort of a domino effect. When a certain type of book stops selling well — or never sold well in the first place — denizens of publishing houses start muttering amongst themselves, “Well, I guess, I won’t be acquiring any more of those books anytime soon.”

When editors begin so muttering, agents who make their livings by selling that sort of book turn pale — and tell their Millicents that they’re really not looking to pick up clients in that category just now. And guess what that does to her rejection rates?

What’s the best way to change their collective minds about how marketable a particular book category is? Increasing sales in it, that’s how. Industry types tend to be very sensitive to even minor upsurges in sales.

So I repeat: this would be a very, very good time to continue — or get into — the habit of purchasing the kind of book that you write, especially books published within the last 5 years (the industry’s definition of the current market). Think of it as market research, a way to keep up with what the industry is interested in seeing these days. Heck, I know many authors who routinely claim buying competitors’ books as income tax deductions — although I since neither they nor I are tax experts, you should talk to someone who is familiar with taxes for artists before you start filling out those forms.

I hear some incredulous huffing out there. “Yeah, right,” some cynics will sneer. “My buying a single book is going to reverse a major economic trend. While I’m at it, I think I’ll juggle the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, and the Golden Gate Bridge.”

In a way, you’re right, oh cynics: naturally, no single book sale will alter conditions for aspiring writers everywhere. But if you get into the habit of buying books in your chosen category and encourage all of your kith and kin to do the same, it’s a start. If aspiring writers all across the English-speaking world embraced the same laudable practice, editorial minds could indeed be changed — and where editors’ minds go, good agents’ are never slow to follow.

Yes, even when the PBI is at an all-time high.

Okay, that’s enough economic theory for one day; let’s get back to the business at hand, learning how to craft a winning synopsis.

Mirabile dictu, yesterday’s nagging feeling that I was about to produce a checklist of common synopsis mistakes to avoid was 100% accurate. Kind of predictable, actually, as I am addicted to such lists and synopses vary so much that there honestly is no single reliable formula for producing the perfect one. But you can steer clear of the problems agents and their screeners see every day, right?

Let’s assume that you have completed a solid draft of your synopsis, and are now in the editing phase. While we’re at it, let’s be even more optimistic and further assume that you have launched upon the synopsis-creating process long enough before you need one that you have time for an editing phase.

So where should you start? Print out your synopsis, ensconce yourself in the most comfortable reading chair you can find, and read it over to yourself OUT LOUD and IN ITS ENTIRETY.

Why out loud, and why in hard copy? And why does that question make my long-time readers chuckle?

I freely admit it: this is one of my most dearly-held editing rules. It is infinitely easier to catch logical leaps in any text when you read it out loud. It is practically the only way to catch the redundancies that the space constraints of a computer screen virtually guarantee will be in the text, and it will make rhythm problems leap off the page at you.

Please don’t kid yourself that you can approximate the hard-copy reading experience from just reading your synopsis out loud from your computer screen, either: the eye reads screen text roughly 70% faster than page text, so screen editing is inherently harder to do well. (And don’t think for an instant that publishing professionals are not aware of that: as an editor, I can tell you that a text that has not been read in hard copy by the author usually announces itself with absolute clarity — it’s the one with a word missing here or there.)

After you have read it through a couple of times, clearing out repeated words, ungraceful phrases, and stuff that you don’t quite remember why you wanted to include in the first place, ask yourself the following questions. Be honest with yourself, or there is no point in the exercise; if you find that you are too close to the work to have sufficient perspective, ask someone you trust to read the synopsis, then ask THAT person these questions.

(1) Does my synopsis present actual scenes from the book in glowing detail, or does it merely summarize the plot?

You want the answer to be the former, of course. Why? Well, if you’ve been following Synopsispalooza, you should be chanting the reason in your sleep by now, but allow me to repeat it: the synopsis is, in fact, a writing sample that you are presenting to an agent or editor, every bit as much as the first 50 pages are.

Which means what, readers who have been following this series? Chant it with me now: you need to make sure it demonstrates clearly that you have writing talent.

Not merely that you had the tenacity to sit down and write a book, because in these days of steeply-rising PBI, agents and editors will be hearing from tens of thousands of people who have done that, but that you have a gift with words and sharp, clearly-delineated insights.

It is far, far easier to show off your writing in detailed summaries of actual scenes, rather than in a series of generalities about the plot and the characters. And if your favorite line or image of the book does not make a guest appearance in the synopsis, whyever not?

(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?

This is another excellent reason to read the synopsis out loud: to make sure it holds up as a story. Since part of the point of the synopsis is to demonstrate what a good storyteller you are, flow is obviously important.

If you have even the tiniest reservations about whether you have achieved this goal, read your synopsis out loud to someone unfamiliar with your project — and then ask your listener to tell the basic story back to you. If there are holes in your account, this method will make them leap out at you.

Insofar as a hole can leap, that is.

(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?

This is where most synopses stumble, frankly, because it is hard for a writer to notice about his own work: many synopses summarize plot or argument adequately, but in the rush to fit everything in, the telling becomes a bit dry. The goal here is not merely to provide a laundry list of major plot points, after all, but to give an overview of the dramatic arc of the book.

And yes, that is significantly harder to pull off in a 1-page synopsis than a 5-page one. Here’s a revision strategy that will work with either.

(a) Hand your synopsis to someone who has NOT been around you while you have been writing the book (trust me, you’ve been talking about your plot or argument, if only in your sleep). Ask her to read it over a couple of times.

(b) Chat with her about something else entirely for half an hour.

(c) Ask her to tell you the plot of the book — WITHOUT looking at the synopsis again. Don’t comment while she does it.

(d) Make notes on the points that fell out of her account.

(e) After you have thanked this kind soul profusely and sent her on her way, glowing with virtue, sit down with the hard copy and highlight the missed points on the synopsis pages.

(f) Read through the synopsis, omitting the highlighted bits: does the story hold together without them?

If so, are those bits really necessary?

(g) If the storyline suffers from the omissions, go back over the individual sentences that depict those plot points. Are those sentences representative of your best writing?

9 times out of 10, they won’t be. Chances are, your reader found these points unmemorable because they were summarized, rather than enlivened with specific details — or because they concerned subplots that aren’t strictly necessary to understanding the central storyline.

Does all of that pitiful whimpering out there in the ether indicate that some of you are reluctant to treat your synopsis with the respect due to all of your writing? “But Anne,” some whimperers point out, “my story IS my plot. How can I cut any of it from the synopsis?”

May I suggest that perhaps you are focusing on the trees, rather than the forest? Usually, when hopeful synopsizers don’t think they can trim their account, they’re trying to cram too much of the plot into just a couple of pages. Obviously, you’re going to want to include the major plot twists, but a this happened, then this happened, then that happened… account is less interesting to Millicent than, well, just being told the story. Not every detail is relevant to the central story, is it?

So what is the central story of your book? Try telling that in your synopsis, rather than including the various subplots. Even better…

(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?

You wouldn’t believe — at least, I hope you’re far, far too good a storyteller to believe it readily — what a high percentage of the fiction synopses Millicent sees consist simply of X happened, then Y happened, then Z happened. Yes, a synopsis is short, but this is not the most effective way to tell even a truncated story, is it?

Fortunately, to a professional eye, there are a couple of pretty good structural indicators that a synopsis has fallen into laundry-list mode. Once again, your trusty highlighting pen is your friend here.

(a) Firmly grasp said highlighter.

(b) Go through the synopsis and mark every use of the word AND and THEN.

(c) While you’re at is, mark every sentence written in the passive voice.

(d) After you’ve finished, revisit each marked sentence with an eye to revision. Again, do those sentences represent your best writing — or are they just laundry lists of happenings, tossed together in a hasty attempt to get through the most important plot points as quickly as humanly possible?

Why hunt for AND, THEN, and the passive voice in particular? All of these phenomena tend to be symptomatic of rushed storytelling.

Of course, it’s perfectly understandable that a writer trying to crush an 80,000 word story or argument into three pages might conceivably feel a mite rushed. But trust me on this one: that is not the primary impression you want to give an agency screener.

Another good indicator of a tendency toward laundry-listing is…

(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?

Including a cast of hundreds, if not thousands, is an extremely common first novel phenomenon. Mentioning too many of them in a synopsis is another.

Why is a too-large cast problematic? Well, lest we forget, Millicent tends to scan synopses awfully darned quickly — that’s why it’s a good idea to capitalize each character’s name the first time it appears in the synopsis, right? If too many character names show up too close together in the synopsis, she’s not necessarily going to keep all of them straight in her mind.

Don’t be too hard on her about this, please: remember, she won’t just have your 27 characters tumbling about in her head, but also the 15 characters in the synopsis she read immediately before yours, the 38 from the one before that, and the 183 from that novel she was scanning on the subway.

She’s a Tolstoy fan, apparently.

How many is too many, you ask? The hand-the-pages-to-a-relative-stranger trick is dandy for determining this.

(a) Ask a kind soul to read the synopsis. Ideally, someone who had not previously read a syllable of your writing, but has at some point in the recent past purchased and read a similar book.

(b) Chat about other things for ten minutes.

(c) Have him tell the story back to you. Unless your characters’ names are unusually wacky, chances are good that the teller will remember only the names that are most active in the plot.

If you’re too shy or too rushed to attempt this test, trot out your highlighter pens and get to work on a fresh copy of your synopsis.

(a) Mark all of the names the first time they appear in the synopsis. This should be easy, in theory, if you have embraced the convention of presenting each character’s name in all caps (MARTA, 32) the first time around, to alert a skimming Millicent to the advent of a new character.

(b) Arrange the pages along a table, countertop, or even along the floor, so you may simultaneously see each page in its entirety.

(c) Go do something else for twenty minutes. Move the laundry from the washer to the dryer, for instance, or take a nice, brisk walk around the block.

You spend too much time sitting in front of your computer screen, you know. I worry about you.

(d) When you return, stand a couple of feet away from the pages, admiring the proportion of highlighted to non-highlighted text.

In most professional synopses, the highlighting will be heaviest in the first couple of paragraphs, with occasional swipes every paragraph or two later on. If, on the other hand, your pages look as though they fell into an unusually vivid inkwell, you might want to consider reducing the number of characters you mention.

More of the synopsis-troubleshooting checklist follows next time, of course. Keep munching those PB&Js, everybody, and keep up the good work!

Synopsispalooza, Part X: the seductive power of the well-constructed synopsis. (Or several.)

Sorry about the unusually long silence, campers — I had a bit of a health setback. I’ll tell you a bit about it (and gloat over the long-overdue Nobel laurels bestowed upon comic novelist Mario Vargas Llosa) when I have a trifle more energy. In the meantime, back to the business at hand.

Last time, in the midst of a discussion about how to banish the appearance of annoyance about having to summarize your beautifully complex plotline or subtly nuanced argument in just a few pages from your synopsis — because nothing, but nothing, frames writerly resentment about practicalities better than a synopsis, unless it’s a query letter or pitch — I suggested working out your (quite possibly completely legitimate) aggressions in other, more constructive manners.

Like screaming at your imaginary friend or jousting with the end of your couch. Try christening a particularly unattractive throw pillow Millicent and giving it to your favorite dog to worry; pull up a chair, grab some popcorn, and enjoy the show.

I don’t mean any of this humorously. (Okay, so I don’t mean it only humorously.) For years, I’ve been giving writers published and unpublished alike those old-fashioned Bozo Bop Bags — inflatable plastic with a weight in the bottom so every time you hit it, it bounces up again — as birthday and congratulations-on-landing-an-agent presents. Everyone laughs at first, but most of my recipients do report that they end up using them, possibly because it’s a whole lot more comforting to imagine Millicent looking like this:

Bozo Bop Bag

Than like this:

Harpy

My point is, the agent-seeking process and road to publication is genuinely frustrating, even for the lucky few for whom it is speedy. Don’t keep it inside, festering in your guts: do something constructive with it.

At least don’t do anything self-destructive with it. And for heaven’s sake, don’t loose it on an agent or editor until after you’ve signed a contract with ‘em.

Ideally, not even then. (And if you don’t understand why, please see my earlier post on the self-defeating nature of most writerly resentment aimed at the folks on the business side of the industry.)

Instead, show that you are professional enough to approach the synopsis as a marketing necessity it is — and that you understand agents’ and editors’ time constraints by getting to your point as rapidly as possible.

Here’s a novel thought on how to do that: what if you crafted the first paragraph of your synopsis as carefully as the first paragraph of your book?

Not merely by including a hook, that much-recommended-by-English-comp-teachers-everywhere grabber of an initial sentence intended to suck the reader directly into the story of a novel or memoir, but by presenting a vivid impression of your fascinating protagonist in a situation rife with conflict, bolstered by juicy and unusual details that appeal to one or more of the reader’s visceral senses?

Or, for a nonfiction book that isn’t a memoir, how about opening with a blazingly interesting anecdote that illustrates the vital impact of your subject matter upon real life, told in similarly rich detail?

It’s just a suggestion. I can tell you from long experience, though, that it’s just as effective a way to grab Millicent’s attention in a synopsis as it is to wow a contest judge in an entry. Acting fast, literarily speaking, is great strategy when dealing with super-fast readers.

Speed of probable reading should never be far from a savvy synopsis-writer’s mind. Why? Well, as we discussed yesterday, agents do NOT ask writers for synopses because they are too lazy to read entire books or because they cherish a secret antipathy for literature: they ask for synopses because they receive so many submissions that, even with the best of wills, they could never possibly read them all.

Sorry. If I ran the universe, not only would manuscripts be judged purely upon the quality of their writing by book-loving souls who would read every submission in full, but there would be free merry-go-rounds in every schoolyard, college tuition would cost nothing, lions and tigers would want nothing more than to cuddle up to humans and purr — and writers and editors with my years of experience would not allow themselves to be cajoled into pulling all-nighters in order to comply with suddenly-moved deadlines and the brand-new demands of someone who has had three months to give feedback, but didn’t actually get around to it until three and a half days before he wanted the revised pages.

However, as even the most cursory glance at my schedule for the last week would tell you, I apparently do not run the universe. Unfortunate for all concerned, I think.

Let me approach this diamond-hard truth from a slightly different angle, because understanding this complex phenomenon is vitally important to a writer’s mental health and happiness during the querying and submission stages: in order to get picked up, a submission not only needs to strike an agent (and, at a big agency, her screeners) as both wonderful and marketable — it needs to do so QUICKLY.

Why, I hear you shout in the general direction of the heavens? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: the sheer volume of manuscripts from which they have to select the handful they will represent. As a direct result of the imperative to narrow down the competition as early in the game as possible, most submissions are — are those of you new to this blog sitting down? — rejected on the first page, most query letters within the first paragraph, and most synopses within the first two.

The synopsis, then, is one of your few chances to make your work jump up and down and scream: “Me! Me! I’m the one out of 10,000 that you actually want to read, the one written by an author who is willing to work with you, instead of sulking over the way the industry runs!”

Mind you, I’m not saying that you SHOULDN’T sulk: actually, it would be merely Pollyannaish NOT to do that from time to time. Vent as often as you please.

But it simply is not prudent to vent anywhere near an agent or editor whom you want to take on your work — and certainly not in the tone of the synopsis. The synopsis’ tone should match the book’s, and unless you happen to be writing about deeply resentful characters, it’s just not appropriate to sound clipped and disgruntled.

Actually, you might want to avoid it even if your characters are deeply resentful, because Millicent and her cronies see so many synopses written in that particular tone. Cleaving to it, even if it’s genuinely representative of the book’s voice, may well render it harder for your submission to get noticed as unique.

It’s human nature, I’m afraid, for past experience to color one’s perception of the new. In Millicent’s case, the foibles of last 150 synopses she’s read — or 1500, or 15,000 — will almost certainly affect her assessment of the next one she reads.

I believe the colloquial term for this sort of reaction is knee-jerk.

Again, I’m sorry to have to report just how easy it is for a synopsis to trigger the rejection response. As I believe I have mentioned before, I don’t run the universe; I only write about it.

Because it is safe to assume that Millicent’s super-itchy finger will be on the rejection button for the entire time she’s reading your synopsis — perhaps even literally on the rejection button, if you have submitted it via e-mail; as I’ve mentioned often before, it’s significantly easier and faster to reject an e-mailed submission or query — you’re not only going to want to grab her attention quickly. You’re also going to want to make sure that the synopsis you send her serves precisely the purpose you wish.

Is this a good time to suggest that a synopsis that a writer might choose to send with a query letter actually serves a slightly different purpose than one that an agent asks one to send along with the first 50 pages or the entire manuscript?

Yes, Virginia: I am about to suggest that you might want to come up with different versions to suit the different occasions, and not merely, as I intimated earlier in this series, to meet various length restrictions.

Take some nice, deep breaths, and that dizzy feeling will pass in a few seconds. While you’re regaining your bearings, I’m going to try to make the differences as clear as humanly possible.

The Query Synopsis
Naturally, any good synopsis is going to hit the high points of the book, but the synopsis accompanying a query packet has to meet a few specialized criteria in order to be successful. If a query letter is a verbal hallway pitch, the synopsis destined to be tucked into a query envelope is the surrogate for the book itself, enabling you to lay out the plot at greater length than a paragraph in a query letter permits.

The primary purpose of a query synopsis, then, is to prompt the agent or editor to ask to see the first 50 pages — or, if you’re lucky, the entire manuscript, right?

Let me repeat that, because it’s important: the SOLE purpose of the query synopsis is to garner a request for pages, not to cause the agency screener to set it down with a sigh and say, “What a beautiful story. Now I don’t need to read the book.”

Remember how during the summer, I talked at length about how landing an agent and/or finding a publisher is about convincing them to fall in love? If the query letter is the personal ad, the query synopsis is the coffee date.

But let’s not kid ourselves here: its goal is seduction.

Which is why you’re going to want to include all of those juicy, original details early on — as with any good seduction, you’re going to want to make a great first impression that conveys an intriguing promise of untold glories to come. Make it clear what is fresh and different about this book from anything else they’re likely to read this year — or this decade, for that matter.

How are you going to pull that off? For starters: make the book sound well-rounded and satisfying, providing enough detail to pique Millicent’s interest, but not so much that the screener begins to wonder if you’ve sent the synopsis or the first few pages of the book. When in doubt, stick to the strongest dramatic arc or argument in the book.

In other words, tell a good story, but don’t get bogged down in the details. For heaven’s sake, though, don’t be a tease; PLEASE don’t make the very common mistake of not explaining how the plot is resolved.

Yes, yes, I know — I brought this up earlier in this series, but leaving out the ending is such a common rookie synopsizer mistake that it bears revisiting. A synopsis is the place to show off what a clever plotter or argument-monger you are, not to tease with vague hint about what might happen.

To put it even more bluntly: this is not the time to conceal your favorite plot twist, as a delightful surprise for when the agent requests the entire book. Revealing it now will SUBSTANTIALLY increase the probability that the rest of the book will get read, in fact.

Why? Well, agents and editors tend not to be very fond of guessing games — or, as Millicent likes to call them, “those damned writer tricks that waste my time.”

So ending your synopsis on a cliffhanger on the theory that they will be DYING to read the rest of the book to find out how it all ends seldom works. Remember, agency screeners are suspicious people: if you don’t show how the plot works itself to a conclusion, they may well conclude that you just haven’t written the ending yet.

And what’s Millicent likely to do if she even flirts with that conclusion, campers? That’s right: next!

Realistically, there tends to be a fairly large time gap between when an agent or screener reads a query synopsis and when our Millicent can expect to be holding the manuscript in her hot little hands to find out what’s going to happen next. It’s not a profession that attracts the type of person who automatically skips to the last page of a murder mystery to find out who dunnit, after all.

Even if it did, trust me, anyone who is going to be reading a synopsis in an agency is going to be aware of the probable time lag before the suspense can possibly be relieved. If she scans the mail eagerly every day and pounces upon the submission the instant it appears, it’s still bound to be at least a few weeks.

Tell me, cliffhanger-lovers: when’s the last time that you set a book down at an exciting point, walked away for a month, then came back to it? I thought so.

The Submission Synopsis
Within your submission packet, a requested synopsis serves quite a different function from the query synopsis, which (as I mentioned above) is expected to summarize the entire book. In a packet of requested materials, though, the synopsis has a different goal: to convince the agent or editor that the rest of the book is every bit as interesting and action-packed as your first 50 pp.

From the requesting agent’s point of view, a submission synopsis is the substitute for the rest of the book. Therefore, from the writer’s point of view, the submission synopsis is a marketing tool, intended to get the agent or editor to ask to see the rest of the book.

Repeat that last paragraph like a mantra while you are constructing your synopsis. Or while you’re punching out your Bozo.

Before any super-literal reader reaches for a hatchet and chops every bit of premise from his synopsis, let me caution against going too wild with the cuts — it would be a mistake, obviously, not to mention anything that happens in the first 50 pages at all. Since the agent already has your partial in hand, however, your submission query can gloss over the premise much more quickly than in a query synopsis.

If you’re thinking, “My, but something about this rings half a dozen bells in the back of my weary head,” give yourself a gold star: I discussed this strategy in a post last week, in talking about clever ways to chop lines and paragraphs off a too-long synopsis. As I mentioned then, the vast majority of synopses spend FAR too much page space establishing the premise; move along.

I hear some of you out there grumbling. “But Anne,” you cry, “isn’t it the job of the first 50 pp. to inspire such interest in the reader that she wants — nay, longs — to read the rest of the book?”

In a word, yes, but not alone.

In several words: usually, agents (and their screeners; remember, even if an agent asks you to send pages, she is usually not the first person in the building to read them, even if she REALLY liked you in a pitch meeting) will read the requested chapter(s) first, to see if they like the authorial voice, THEN turn to the synopsis.

Thus, it is relatively safe to assume that Millicent doesn’t need you to spend a page of the synopsis setting up the premise and introducing the protagonist. Remember, her eyes, like most agents’ and editors’, have been trained to spot and regard repetition as one of the seven deadly sins.

The others, in case you’re interested, are Boring, Incorrectly Formatted, Rude Approach, Confusing, Been Done, and Vague.

The submission synopsis is where you demonstrate to their hyper-critical eyes that you are not merely a writer who can hold them in thrall for a few isolated pages: you have the vision and tenacity to take the compelling characters you have begun to reveal in your first chapter through an interesting story to a satisfying conclusion.

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

For this reason, it is imperative that your synopsis makes it very, very clear how the first 50 pp. you are submitting fits into the overall arc of the book, regardless of whether you are submitting fiction or nonfiction. But don’t forget to make the rest of the book sound interesting, too.

If your head is whirling from all of this, or if it’s starting to sound as though your synopsis will need to be longer than the book in order to achieve its goals, don’t worry. Next time — or after I’ve caught up on my sleep, whichever comes first — I shall cover some tips on how to avoid the most common synopsis bugbears, as well as how to slim it down if it becomes overlong.

That’s right, gang: it’s time for another of my trademark troubleshooting checklists. You know you love ‘em, even though they madden you. Keep up the good work!

Synopsispalooza, Part IX: for those who are beginning to feel overwhelmed, or, there is a proper time and place for primal screaming — and the synopsis page isn’t it

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I meant to post yesterday, honestly; blame my physical therapist’s fondness for crying out, “Just lean on your hands for another few minutes while we try X…” I use those hands for other things, as it turns out. I even had this half-written before PT yesterday, but all of my hand and wrist strength had been used up for the day.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll no doubt say it again: life is no respecter of deadlines.

As we’ve been working our way through Synopsispalooza, I’ve been worrying about something over and above my aching wrists: has my advice that virtually any aspiring writer will be better off sitting down to construct a winning synopsis substantially before s/he is likely to need to produce one coming across as a trifle callous, as if I were laboring under the impression that the average aspiring writer doesn’t already have difficulty carving out time in a busy day to write at all? Why, some of you may well be wondering, would I suggest that you should take on more work — and such distasteful work at that?

I assure you, I have been suggesting this precisely because I am sympathetic to your plight. I completely understand why aspiring writers so often push producing one to the last possible nanosecond before it is needed: it genuinely is a pain to summarize the high points of a plot or argument in a concise-yet-detail-rich form.

Honestly, I get it. The newer a writer is to the task, the more impossible — and unreasonable — it seems.

And frankly, aspiring writers have a pretty good reason to feel that way about constructing synopses: it is such a different task than writing a book, involving skills widely removed from observing a telling moment in exquisite specificity or depicting a real-life situation with verve and insight, the expectation that any good book writer should be able to produce a great synopsis off the cuff actually isn’t entirely reasonable.

So it’s probably not utterly surprising that the very prospect of pulling one together can leave a talented writer feeling like this:

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Rather than the way we feel when we polish off a truly stellar piece of writing, which is a bit more like this:

singing-in-the-rain

There’s just no getting around it: synopsis-writing, like pitch- and query-writing, is not particularly soul-satisfying. Nor is it likely to yield sentences and paragraphs that will be making readers weep a hundred years from now — fortunate, perhaps, because literally no one outside of an agency, publishing house, or contest-judging bee is ever going to see the darned thing. Yet since we cannot change the industry’s demand for them, all we writers can do is work on the supply end: by taking control of WHEN we produce our synopses, we can make the generation process less painful and generally improve the results.

Okay, so these may not sound like the best conceivable motivations for taking a few days out of your hard-won writing time to pull together a document that’s never going to be published — and to do so before you absolutely have to do it. Unless you happen to be a masochist who just adores wailing under time pressure, though, procrastinating about producing one is an exceedingly bad idea.

But as of today, I’m no longer going to ask you to take my word for that. For those of you who are still resistant to the idea of writing one before you are specifically asked for it I have two more inducements to offer you today.

First — and this is a big one – taking the time to work on a synopsis BEFORE you have an actual conversation with an agent (either post-submission or at a conference) is going to make it easier for you to talk about your book professionally.

Don’t sneeze at that advantage, perennial queriers — it’s extremely important for conference-goers, e-mail queriers, and pretty much everyone who is ever going to be trying to convince someone in the publishing industry to take an interest in a manuscript, because (brace yourselves) the prevailing assumption amongst the pros is that a writer who cannot talk about her work professionally probably is not going to produce a professional-quality manuscript.

I know, I know — from a writer’s point of view, this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense: we all know (or are) shy-but-brilliant writers who would rather scarf down cups of broken glass than give a verbal pitch, yet can produce absolute magic on the page. Unfortunately, in contexts where such discussion is warranted, these gifted recluses are out of luck.

Why? Well, it’s sort of like the logic underlying querying: evaluating a 400-page manuscript based solely upon a single-page query letter — or, even more common, upon the descriptive paragraph in that query — is predicated upon the assumption that any gifted writer must be able to write marketing copy and lyrical prose equally well. (Cough, cough.) Similarly, conference pitching assumes that the basic skills an agent must have in order to sell books successfully — an ability to boil down a story or argument to its most basic elements while still making it sound fascinating, a knack for figuring out how it would fit into the current market, the knowledge to determine who would be the most receptive audience, editorial and reader both, for such a book, the bravery to tell someone in a position to do something about it — are lurking in the psyche of your garden-variety brilliant writer as well.

Come to think of it, querying and synopsizing effectively require most of those skills as well, don’t they? Particularly synopsizing, if you think about it like a marketer, rather than like a writer.

And yes, you should try to do that from time to time: contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, being market-savvy does not necessarily mean compromising one’s artistic vision or selling out. As any working artist could tell you, one can be a perfectly good artist and still present one’s work well for marketing purposes. Refusing to learn professional presentation skills does not improve one’s art one jot; all it does is make it harder to sell that art.

So force yourself to think like a marketer for a second, rather than the author of that 380-page novel: if you were the book’s agent, how would you describe it to an editor? Perhaps like this:

(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.

(5) show the primary story arc through BRIEF descriptions of the most important scenes.

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

Or, if you were the agent for your nonfiction book, you might go about it like this:

(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 any large group of people or organization who might already be working on this problem or question, to demonstrate already-existing public interest in the subject,

(4) give some indication of how you intend to prove your case, showing the argument in some detail and saying what kind of proof you will be offering in support of your points,

(5) demonstrate why the book will appeal to a large enough market niche to make publishing it worthwhile (again, ideally, backed up with statistics), and

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

In short, you would be describing your book in professional terms, rather than trying to summarize the entire book in 1-5 pages. In fact, try thinking of your synopsis as the book’s first agent: its role is not to reproduce the experience of reading your manuscript, but to convince people in the publishing industry to read it.

Tell me: does thinking of the pesky thing in those terms make it seem more or less intimidating to write?

Although it may feel like the former, in the long term, taking the time to do this well usually helps a writer feel less intimidated down the line. Investing some serious time in developing a solid, professional-quality synopsis can be very, very helpful in this respect. The discipline required to produce it forces you to think of your baby as a marketable product, as well as a piece of complex art and physical proof that you have locked yourself away from your kith and kin for endless hours, creating.

Not only will it be easier for you to sit down and write a synopsis for your next book (and the one after that), but by training yourself not to answer the question, “So what do you write?” with a short, pithy, market-oriented overview of the plot or argument, you are going to come across to others as much more serious about your writing than if you embrace the usual response of, “Well, um, it’s sort of autobiographical…”

Again, that progress is nothing at which to be sneezing. An aspiring writer who has learned to discuss his work professionally is usually better able to get folks in the industry to sit down and read it. That’s not a value judgment — it’s a fact.

Half of you are shaking your heads in resentful disbelief, aren’t you? “But Anne,” those of you annoyed by the brevity of a requested synopsis point out, “you keep saying that every syllable an aspiring writer sends to an agency is a writing sample. So how can I NOT think of the 3-page synopsis they want me to send as a super-compressed version of my book? Let me be all stressed out over trying to fit 100 pages into a paragraph or two, already.”

I can tell you how: because you’ll drive yourself crazy if you think of it that way. The purpose of a synopsis is not to summarize the entire book; it is to give a swift overview of its high points. Thus, the synopsizer’s problem is not compression — it’s selection.

Does the sound of a thousand pairs of eyebrows crashing into hairlines mean that some of you had never thought of it that way before? Cast your eyes back over those lists of what is supposed to be in a professional synopsis: do any of those steps actually ask you to summarize the book?

No, they are asking you to hit the high points — but to present those high points like a readable story or single-line argument.

Don’t get too upset if you hadn’t thought of it that way before. Even writers who are absolutely desperate to sell their first books tend to forget that it is a product intended for a specific market. As I have mentioned earlier in this series, in the throes of resenting the necessity of producing a query letter and synopsis, it is genuinely difficult NOT to grumble about having to simplify a beautifully complicated plot, set of characters, and/or argument.

But think about it for a second: any agent who signs you is going to have to be able to rattle off the book’s high points in order to market it to editors. So is any editor who falls in love with it, in order to pitch it to an editorial committee.

See why they might want to have a synopsis by their sides? This is not a pointless hoop through which agents, editors, and contest rule-mongers force aspiring writers to jump in order to test their fortitude; a synopsis is a professional requirement, necessary for any of these people to help you bring your writing to your future reading public.

You’re feeling just the teensiest bit better about having to write the darned thing, aren’t you?

Here’s another good reason to invest the time: by having labored to reduce your marvelously complex story or argument to its basic elements, you will be far less likely to succumb to that perennial bugbear of pitchers, the Pitch that Would Not Die.

Those of you who have pitched at conferences know what I’m talking about, right? Everyone who has hung out with either pitchers or pitch-hearing agents has heard at least one horror story about a pitch that went on for an hour, because the author did not have the vaguest conception what was and was not important to emphasize in his plot summary.

Trust me, you do not want to be remembered for that. Your manuscript has many, many other high points, doesn’t it?

For those of you who haven’t yet found yourself floundering for words in front of an agent or editor, allow me to warn you: the unprepared pitcher almost always runs long. When you are signed up for a 10-minute pitch meeting, you really do need to be able to summarize your book within just a few minutes — harder than it sounds! — so you have time to talk about other matters.

You know, mundane little details, such as whether the agent wants to read the book in question.

Contrary to the prevailing writerly wisdom that dictates that verbal pitching and writing are animals of very different stripes, spending some serious time polishing your synopsis is great preparation for pitching. Even the most devoted enemy of brevity will find it easier to chat about the main thrust of a book if he’s already figured out what it is.

Stop laughing — I have been to a seemingly endless array of writers’ conferences over the years, and let me tell you, I’ve never attended one that didn’t attract at least a handful of aspiring writers who seemed not to be able to tell anyone else what their books were about.

Which, in case you were wondering, is the origin of that hoary old industry chestnut:

Agent: So, what’s your book about?

Writer: About 900 pages.

The third inducement: a well-crafted synopsis is something of a rarity, so if you can produce one as a follow-up to a good meeting at a conference, or to tuck into your submission packet with your first 50 pages, or to send off with your query packet, you will look like a star, comparatively speaking.

You would be astonished (at least I hope you would) at how often an otherwise well-written submission or query letter is accompanied by a synopsis obviously dashed off in the ten minutes prior to the post office’s closing, as though the writing quality, clarity, and organization of it weren’t to be evaluated at all. I don’t think that sheer deadline panic accounts for the pervasiveness of the disorganized synopsis; I suspect lack of preparation.

Hmm, wasn’t someone just talking about unprepared pitchers always going long?

I also suspect resentment. I’ve met countless writers who don’t really understand why the synopsis is necessary at all; to them, it’s just busywork that agents request of aspiring writers, a meaningless hoop through which they must jump in order to seek representation.

No wonder they hate it; they regard it as a minor species of bullying. But we all know better than that now, right?

All too often, the it’s-just-a-hoop mentality produces a synopsis that gives the impression not that the writer is genuinely excited about this book and eager to market it, but rather that he is deeply and justifiably angry that it needed to be written at all.

And that’s a problem, because to an experienced eye, writerly resentment shows up beautifully against the backdrop of a synopsis. It practically oozes off the page.

Unfortunately, the peevish synopsis is the norm, not the exception; as any Millicent who screens queries and submissions would be more than happy to tell you, it’s as though half the synopsis-writers out there believe they’re entering their work in an anti-charm contest. The VAST majority of novel synopses 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 to see aspiring writers suffer.

(You’re chortling at this attitude by this point in the post, aren’t you, even if you were one of the many who believed it, say, yesterday? If not, you might want to go back and reread that bit about why the agent of your dreams actually does need you to provide her with a synopsis. But back to the resentment already in progress.)

Frustrated by what appears to be an arbitrary requirement, many writers just do the bare minimum they believe is required, totally eschewing anything that might remotely be considered style. Or, even more commonly, they procrastinate about doing it at all until the last possible nanosecond, and end up throwing together a synopsis in a fatal rush and shove it into an envelope, hoping that no one will pay much attention to it.

It’s the query letter and the manuscript that count, right?

Wrong. In case you thought I was joking the other 47 times I have mentioned it over the last couple of weeks, EVERYTHING you submit to an agent or editor is a writing sample.

If you can’t remember that full-time, have it tattooed on the back of your hand. It honestly is that important to your querying and submission success.

While frustration is certainly understandable, it’s self-defeating to treat the synopsis as unimportant or to crank it out in a last-minute frenzy. Find a more constructive outlet for your annoyance — and make sure that every page you submit represents your best writing.

Realistically, it’s not going to help your book’s progress one iota to engage in passive-aggressive blaming of any particular agent or editor. It’s even less sensible to resent their Millicents. They did not make the rules, by and large.

And even if they did, let’s face it — in real life, almost nobody is actually brave enough to say to an agent or editor, “No, you can’t have a synopsis, you lazy so-and-so. Read the whole darned book, if you liked my pitch or query, because the only way you’re going to find out if I can write is to READ MY WRITING! AAAAAAAAH!”

Okay, so it’s mighty satisfying to contemplate saying it. Picture it as vividly as you can, then move on.

I’m quite serious about this. My mental health assignment for you while working on the synopsis: once an hour, picture the nastiest, most aloof agent in the world, and mentally bellow your frustrations at him at length. Be as specific as possible about your complaints, but try not to repeat yourself; the goal here is to touch upon every scintilla of resentment lodged in the writing part of your brain.

Then find the nearest mirror, gaze into it, and tell yourself to get back to work, because you want to get published. Your professional reputation — yes, and your ability to market your writing successfully — is at stake.

I know, the exercise sounds silly, but it will make you feel better to do it, I promise. Far better that your neighbors hear you screaming about how hard it all is than that your resentment find its way into your synopsis. Or your query letter. Or even into your verbal pitch.

Yes, I’ve seen all three happen — but I’ve never seen it work to the venting writer’s advantage. I’ll spare you the details, because, trust me, these were not pretty incidents.

Next time, I shall delve very specifically into the knotty issue of how a synopsis folded up behind a cold query letter might differ from one that is destined to sit underneath a partial manuscript. In the meantime, try to indulge in primal screaming only when nobody else is around, and keep up the good work!

Synopsispalooza, Part VIII: not all horn-tooting is sweet music, at least not to Millicent’s ears

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I shall be striving for brevity this evening, campers. This is the height of deadline season for many of my clients, and virtually the only thing that the small army of doctors and physical therapists who seem to have kidnapped my various body parts since the accident agree upon is that working a second over 16 hours in a day isn’t good for my recovery.

So I’m going to make a valiant attempt to be uncharacteristically terse this evening — no, make that morning. (Please don’t tell the doctor.) And while what I shall be saying at such a rapid clip will be primarily addressed to nonfiction synopsizers, please don’t tune this post out, novelists: our pitfall du jour has swallowed up many an otherwise promising fiction synopsis, too.

Last time, I suggested that if you write nonfiction, you might want to use part of your synopsis to establish — gently — your platform. Why? Well, to make it pellucidly clear to agency screener Millicent even on her most rushed day (and even in her worst mood) that you are indeed uniquely qualified to write the book you are describing. But that does not mean that the platform should overwhelm the book’s content in your synopsis.

Before I move the carnival parade that is Synopsispalooza down the block to more concrete how-to advice, I want to devote this evening’s morning’s post to the single most common pitfall into which Millicent sees nonfiction synopses tumble — and a significant proportion of fiction synopses, come to think of it. Aunt Mehitabel, the veteran contest judge, sees it even more.

I refer, of course, to synopses that sound not just like back jacket blurbs for the book, all premise and puff, without a serious overview of the plot, but like the speech the MC makes before handing the author his or her Lifetime Achievement Award: not only is this book’s author brilliant, talented, and the best person in the universe to write this book, but a great humanitarian and my close personal friend as well.

It’s funnier if you picture Sammy Davis, Junior saying it. Or if you happen to be old enough to remember the alcohol-soaked roasts where compères used to utter such platitudes. (If you are not, be grateful. There used to be only a handful of television stations, so sometimes, tuning in to those roasts was well-nigh inevitable.)

How might such platitudes turn up in a synopsis, you ask? In the midst of a cacophony of one’s own horn-blowing, typically. We’ve already talked about the nails-on-a-chalkboard annoyance factor of the dreaded This book is a natural for Oprah! claim in a query letter, but believe me, reviewing one’s own work is equally Millicent-irritating in a synopsis.

If you are writing a synopsis for a novel, PLEASE avoid the temptation to turn the synopsis into either a self-praise session (“My writing teacher says this is the best comic novel since CATCH-22!”) or an essay on why you chose to write the book (“Wrenched from the depths of my soul after seventeen years of therapy…”). Neither tends to work well, both because neither is really about the book — and, let’s face it, praise is more credible coming from someone other than the person being praised, isn’t it?

And if you doubt the latter, flip over pretty much any book published in North America within the last twenty years and take a gander at the blurbs from famous people. Don’t they ring truer coming from pens OTHER than the author’s?

Yet both the relayed second-hand compliment and the diatribe about the author’s personal motivation for writing the book are rather common inclusions in synopses. How common, you ask? Well, if I had a dime for every fiction synopsis or query I’ve seen that included the phrase, it isn’t autobiographical, but… — or every memoir synopsis that mentioned gratuitously, based on my real-life story… I would own my own miniscule island in the Caribbean.

If I had a dime for every time I’ve heard it in a pitch, I’d fly the surviving members of Monty Python to that Caribbean and have them do the parrot sketch live for my friends. Or maybe just listen to Eric Idle talk for several hours straight. (One pretty good indication that a 4th-grader is going to grow up to write comedy: she has a crush on the guy in Monty Python who did his writing solo, rather than with a partner. Swoon!)

And if I had a dime for every time seen it (self-aggrandizement, that is, not Eric Idle) in a query letter, I’d just buy the five major North American publishing houses outright and make their policies friendlier to first-time authors. But it seems that the repetition fairy isn’t giving out spare change to editors like me anymore, no matter how many aspiring writers I stuff under my pillow.

And believe me, you people are lumpy. No wonder I don’t get as much restful slumber as my doctors advise.

My point is, hyperbolic self-review is almost as common as…well, I was going to say as common as aspiring writers who claim, “My book is a natural for Oprah!” but that’s hyperbolic self-review, isn’t it? To Millicent, it is approximately as distracting from an otherwise well-written synopsis as this is from the rest of this post:

funnywalk

Go ahead — try to keep your eye from straying back up here as you read the paragraphs to come. Walk a mile in Millicent’s moccasins.

I hear some of you chortling out there, do I not? “Oh, Anne,” those of you confident about your descriptive abilities tell me gently, “you’re sweet to worry about my query and synopsis, but I know better than to waltz into that obvious a bear trap. My book is a sensitive, lyrical story of a fascinating person…”

Stop right there, unjustified chortlers. What was that last sentence, if it was not self-review?

Half of you just did a double-take, didn’t you? A good trick, given all of the gymnastics going on above.

Well might you: the average synopsis-writer tends to confuse qualitative description of the book with content-based description of the book. To professional eyes, the former is boasting; the latter is a professional synopsis.

“What’s the difference?” truculent former chortlers demand. “A synopsis is supposed to describe the book, right? I’m just making it sound good.”

Not to Millicent or Mehitabel, I’m afraid — and for very solid reason. Tell me, which gives a stronger idea of what a book is about, this synopsis opening:

Ripped from today’s most explosive headlines, EXPLOITATIVE TRASH is a searing indictment of a world gone mad. Told from the perspective of RONNIE LEGUME (14 going on 90), a beautifully-drawn headstrong street kid with a hidden heart of gold — she must conceal it, because where she comes from, nothing valuable is safe for long — the reader breathlessly follows the day-to-day pulse of life on the mean streets of an upper middle-class suburb. Cul-de-sacs have never seen such horror before.

or this one for precisely the same book:

Recent transplant from reform school RONNIE LEGUME (14) does not fit in with the other kids in her mom’s cul-de-sac. Try as she might to blend into his new, upper middle-class surroundings, the tough act that helped keep her safe for seven long years is just too helpful in keeping bullies at bay here. These people might pretend to be respectable, but behind closed doors, Ronnie keeps discovering levels of depravity that would have made her former warden blush.

Honestly, which one would you rather read? It’s really not a very difficult choice, from a professional reader’s perspective: the first is essentially a review; the second introduces an interesting character in an interesting situation. So which gives the better sense of the subject matter? The first distances the reader from the story; the second thrusts the reader right into Ronnie’s world. Which gives the better sense of the book’s tone and focus? The first peppers the reader with clichéd phrases that make this story seem like a hundred others; the second uses unexpected phrasing to make the story appear more original. Which makes the writer seem like the more gifted storyteller?

The sad thing is, the writer of the first might very well believe that he IS giving a just-the-facts-ma’am description. After all, he is using the synopsis to tell what the book is about, right?

That’s precisely the problem: he’s talking about the book, rather than telling the story. In a fiction or memoir synopsis — and often in a nonfiction synopsis as well, if it has a strong historical narrative — it’s vital to tell the book’s story in a compelling manner. All qualitative statements about the book do is take up space that could have been used to tell the story more vividly — and to make it come across as more original.

Originality is key in good synopsis storytelling — why should Millicent request a manuscript if its query synopsis made it sound similar to 27 out of the last 50 manuscripts she read? Emphasizing the surprising parts of the story or argument is always a better strategy in a synopsis than making it sound like any other book she’s likely to have read recently, published or otherwise. Or like a movie, TV show, graphic novel, or any other writer’s production other than your own.

Speaking of originality, don’t underestimate just how much the frequency with which synopsizers attempt the first approach or its first cousin, the back-jacket blurb synopsis, contributes to what turn-offs they are for our pal Millicent — or Mehitabel the contest judge, for that matter. When you’re reading 800 submissions per week or even 25 contest entries in a sitting, commonalities between ostensibly unrelated stories can get pretty darn annoying. At minimum, similarities can make the synopses that contain them all start to blur together.

So I ask you: if 11 of those contest entry synopses contained similar boasts about the quality of the writing, 8 shared at least one plot twist, and you could send only 5 on to the next round of judging, which would you send? Common gaffes make both the contest judge and the agency screener’s decision-making process so much easier.

“But Anne,” some now-chastened former chortlers ask politely, “I understand why I should not toot my own horn. But above, you said that I should not reproduce somebody else’s trumpet solo on my behalf, either. if my writing teacher actually did tell me that I had written the best comic novel since CATCH-22, why shouldn’t I shoehorn that information into my synopsis? It’s not as though I’m the one reviewing my manuscript.”

True, but the synopsis is not the proper place for anyone to review the book in question. Even if David Sedaris, S.J. Perlman, and Dorothy Parker all laughed themselves sick at your wry witticisms, stick to demonstrating that wry wit — and your storytelling ability — in the synopsis. Trust me, you’ll be able to find other opportunities to work other people’s opinions about your work into your marketing copy.

May I suggest, for instance, the back jacket of the book?

Within the context of a synopsis, however true any second-hand praise above may be — not knowing your writing teacher and her relationship to Joseph Heller, I cannot comment upon the appropriateness of the comparison to CATCH-22 — or how difficult it was for an author to write a book, or how apt a descriptive statement that implies an evaluation of quality may be, none of these forms of self-compliment are going to impress Millicent or Mehitabel. On the whole, they prefer to make up their own minds about the quality of the writing in front of them.

Remember, a good fiction or memoir synopsis is NOT a justification for having written the book in the first place: properly, it is one heck of a good story, presented well. Period.

For nonfiction, as I mentioned last time, you will want to do some gentle self-promotion, to give an indication of why your book is uniquely marketable and you are the most reasonable person in the universe to write it (platform, platform, platform!) but again, try not to get sidetracked on WHY you chose to write it or boasting about how generally necessary this book is to the betterment of humanity.

Again, it may surprise you to hear, but a LOT of nonfiction synopses (and even more memoir synopses) go off on these tangents, to their own detriment. These misguided documents tend to run a little something like this:

I wrote this heart-wrenching memoir over the violent objections of my mother, my father, my maternal grandmother, my great-aunt, my six siblings, and my parakeet, Ralph. Despite their begging me not to tell the story of our family’s sordid seven years as goat-smugglers, I felt that this story must be told. The truth shall set us free, and besides, the goats had already gotten their side of the story out to the media.

Well, of course, a memoirist’s relatives are going to kick up a fuss at the prospect of long-buried family secrets being revealed. That’s practically a given (and a reason that so many memoirs are the objects of lawsuit threats; I speak from experience). You have every right to be concerned, personally, although it’s rare that such threats come to fruition. Hurt feelings are rarely actionable, and even when they are, truth is a pretty good defense against a charge of libel.

But none of that is remotely relevant to any situation in which someone in an agency, publishing house, or judging a contest might be reading your synopsis. Why should Millicent care about the hurt feelings of people she has never met — or their literary opinions, for that matter?

Don’t bore her with your reservations in the synopsis; save those qualms to thrill your biographers. Instead, use the space to flesh out your argument with — chant it with me now, readers — intriguing specifics that Millicent is unlikely to see in any other synopsis this week.

There are very few contexts in the publishing world where launching on a lengthy disquisition why you wrote the book is even appropriate — and just so you have it in the back of your mind for future reference, here they are:

(1) Within a nonfiction book proposal, it is sometimes a necessary component to making the argument that you are uniquely qualified to write the book you are proposing, to establish your platform or the book’s marketability. If so, your agent may well advise you to add a section to the proposal entitled something like, “Why Tell This Story Now?”

(2) Within the context of an interview after the book is released, writers are free to ramble on about it as long as they like. 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; we’ve all seen it in a million literary interviews.

(3) When you are chatting with other writers, or if you become very, very good friends with your agent or editor after the contract is signed. Then, talking about it until you’re blue in the face is an accepted part of the creative process.

(4) Immediately after Eric Idle asks you, “So what inspired to became a comic novelist?” (Okay, so maybe this one applies only to me.)

Other than those four situations, however interesting your motivations may have been, they tend not to be anywhere near as interesting to other people — at least those who work in the publishing industry — as the book itself. Nor should they be. At least if the book is any good.

And yours is, isn’t it? I sincerely hope so, for your sake: a writer who honestly believes that the story of how you came to write a book is more interesting than the story in the book is going to have a devil of a time figuring out how to market it. As much as the writing process fascinates those of us in the throes of it, frankly, it doesn’t tend to be all that interesting to non-writers.

Don’t believe me? Start attending book readings for tomes you are unlikely ever to read. 99% of the time, the author will speak at length about why s/he chose to write this particular book.

Watch the audience’s reaction: it’s rare that most of the eyes in the room don’t glaze over at this point.

After you have attended three such readings within the course of a week without yawning once, THEN come to me and talk about whether your synopsis should include a paragraph on why you wrote the book.

I know it’s hard to accept, but actually, in a business sense, why an author wrote any book is not particularly important to the publishing industry. In their eyes, unless you are a celebrity cashing in on your name recognition, you wrote your book for one very simple reason: because you are a writer.

Writers tend to do that, they’ve noticed. You’ve got to get up pretty early in the morning to get a trend like that past an agent or editor.

From that rather cold point of view, a writer who goes on and on about the psychological impulses to tell a particular story (unless the book in question is a memoir) comes across as not very professional — or, at any rate, as a writer who might not really understand that readers can’t reasonably be expected to purchase a book simply because the writer went to the trouble of writing it. Sorry to be the one to break it to you, but it’s true: as much as we writers love to talk about our creative process, on the business side of the industry, such discussion tends to be regarded as a sign of that species of self-involvement that can render an artist rather deaf to the demands of the marketplace.

I have extremely mixed feelings about this assumption, because in my experience, most aspiring writers tend to blurt out their reasons for penning a book not because they think of themselves as Artistes Above Such Sordid Considerations as Marketability, but because they feel so isolated throughout the actual writing process. After years locked up with a book project, it can a positive relief to be able to talk about it to someone, isn’t it, especially when that someone is empowered to get the book published at long last?

It’s natural, it’s understandable, and it’s probably even healthy. By all means, go with that impulse. But please, please take my word on this one: you should most emphatically not do it in your synopsis.

Or indeed, in the presence of anyone employed in the publishing industry, unless you are responding to a direct question from an agent or editor. At least, not until after the ink is dry on your contract.

As usual, there are a couple of exceptions. Obviously, if the agent of your dreams asks, “So, where did you get the idea for this book?” you can and should give an honest answer, unless you happen to have beaten another writer over the head in the dead of night and stolen her work-in-progress. Or if someone stands up at a book reading and asks the same question — although as a rule, I would discourage planting your significant other or other crony in the audience to ask that particular question.

Yes, I’ve seen it happen, and it’s invariably really obvious that it’s a set-up.

Also — at the risk of repeating myself — if you have some very specific expertise that renders your take on a subject particularly valid, feel free to mention it in your pitch or query letter. And in your synopsis, if you are summarizing a nonfiction book. But in fiction, that information does not really belong in the synopsis.

But I can feel already that some of you are not going to fight me on this point. So here is a bit of advice for those of you who are planning to, well, ignore my advice: if you are writing a novel, and you feel that you have an inside perspective that simply must be mentioned in the synopsis, stick it at the end, where it won’t be too intrusive.

All right, I really must get some sleep now. Keep those trumpets in their cases where they belong, everybody, and keep up the good work!

Synopsispalooza, Part VI: you can tell the truth and nothing but the truth in a synopsis, but you just don’t have the space for the whole truth

I am Oz, the Great and Terrible, spoke the Beast, in a voice that was one great roar. Who are you, and why do you seek me?

I am Oz, the Great and Terrible, spoke the Beast, in a voice that was one great roar. Who are you, and why do you seek me?

Brace yourselves, campers: I’m going to be a positive fountain of apologies today. First, I’ve only just noticed that the post that I had scheduled for Thursday afternoon, then gone merrily on my way, assuming I had left you entertained and informed, apparently did not actually go up on Author! Author! until earlier today. I have no idea why. Technically, that is; I know why I took a couple of days off from posting. (Hint: dum de dum dum TO ME.)

Second, I’m sorry about the resolution of the picture above; something went wrong in the uploading process that I didn’t have time to figure out and fix because I’m currently writing on a pretty tight deadline. Third, my regrets about the fact that the dialogue I quoted above does not include the grammatically-necessary quotation marks found in the original text; my blogging program would not allow them in a caption, for some reason best known to its programmers. Fourth, I beg the forgiveness of every L. Frank Baum fan out there: I’ve only just noticed that the quote I used is not from Dorothy’s first visit to the Wizard — the subject of the drawing — but one of her companions’.

Fifth, my profound apologies to those of you who have been following this series on synopsis-writing who happen to be promoting a nonfiction book. Not everything I’ve covered so far in Synopsispalooza has applied to you.

In my defense, like so much of the above, that’s not entirely my fault: outside forces dictate that the fiction, memoir, and nonfiction synopsis must all be slightly different. Since novel and memoir synopses are typically closer than nonfiction synopses are to either, I tackled them first.

In the middle of this festival of summary I like to call Synopsispalooza, I’ve been concentrating for so far primarily upon the specialized problems of novel and memoir synopses. Specifically, I went on (and on and on) about the importance of a novel synopsis’ demonstrating beyond a shadow of a doubt that its writer is a gifted storyteller.

For a memoir, this too is crucial: the most gripping real-life account is going to fall flat on the page if it’s not told well, right? So basically, a memoirist should use the same tactics as a novelist, except in the first person and the past tense: make the book sound like a terrific story.

Have I been gone so long that anybody out there does not remember how to pull that off in a 1-page synopsis? Just in case, let’s review its goals:

(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.

All of these aims are easily transferable to a memoir, right? All you have to do is think of the memoir as story, rather than autobiography, and yourself as the protagonist, and summarize accordingly.

Does that seem a trifle vague? Okay, I’ll be more specific: A 1-page synopsis for a memoir should answer all of these burning questions — and some of these should sound awfully familiar:

Who am I? (other than the memoir’s author, that is)

What is my background? (Specifically, the part of it that renders it interesting enough to read about for 350 pages — and no, neither rampaging narcissism nor “But I spent all of this time writing it!” are adequate answers.)

How and why was/am I an interesting person in an interesting situation?

Who were the people in my life in the midst of all of this interestingness, and how do they move my story along?

What were my hopes and dreams — and what were the major barriers to my bringing them to fruition? Alternatively, what were my fears and how realistic were they?

What would I have gained by attaining these goals — and what would I have lost if I did not?

Here is how charming I am to follow on the page. Please fall in love with me as a protagonist, me as a writer, and ultimately, me as a client/new author signed to the publishing house/contest winner.

Piece of proverbial cake to pull off in a page, right? 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.

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

Again, it’s not all that hard to envision synopsizing a memoir in this manner in 3 or 5 pages. Like a novel, a memoir — a good one, anyway — consists of fully-realized scenes, not just a litany I did this and I felt that. Treat Millicent the agency screener to snippets of those scenes, depicted as vividly as possible.

In other words: as for a novel synopsis, you should minimize the number of generalizations in your memoir synopsis. Instead, use as many concrete details as possible — and make sure to include some tidbits Millicent is highly unlikely to see in anybody else’s synopsis. Instead of concentrating upon cramming as much material as possible on the page, focus on making yourself sound original and fascinating.

My, I’m leaning upon the boldface button heavily this evening, amn’t I? It must be the weighty presence of Oz, the Great and Terrible.

Yet for nonfiction — and, if I’m going to be honest about it, some memoir as well — the task of constructing a synopsis is a trifle more complicated. Yes, you do need to come across as a great storyteller with a fascinating story to tell (and argument to make), but you also are charged with the sometimes heavy burden of convincing Millicent that your subject matter as interesting and important, as well as that you are the best possible writer in the universe to consult about it.

Naturally, that case is quite a bit easier to make if your subject matter is already widely recognized as interesting and important. Especially if you happen already to be celebrated internationally for your prowess in explaining it. In that case, you already have what people in publishing call a platform: a demonstrated ability to be able to get people to pay attention to you when you talk on this particular subject.

(Speaking of which, I’ve a favor to ask: over the years, quite a number of you have asked when I am planning to release this blog in book form, so you may have it sitting on your desk as you write. I am seriously considering pulling together a book proposal for a blog-based book this fall, and I could use some glowing blurbs of entreaty and/or testimonials from blog readers to dress up the proposal. If you’d like to help me out and earn my undying gratitude, drop me a line in the comments, and I shall contact you off-site. Thanks!)

If you are not already commanding public attention for your wit and wisdom on the subject matter of your nonfiction project, don’t worry — contrary to depressed murmurings on the writers’ conference circuit, a writer does not need to be already famous in order to have a platform for a particular book.

Yes, really. Trust me, I have a LOT of experience writing all three types of synopsis, as it happens: in recent years, I’ve sold both a memoir and a nonfiction book to publishers, and my second novel is making the rounds even as I type this. Not to mention all of the synopses I see as a frequent contest judge and even more frequent freelance editor. So yours truly has spent quite a bit of time in the last few years hunkered over the odd synopsis, let me tell you. I know whereat I speak.

In fact, just go ahead and imagine the following words of wisdom booming from the mouth of Oz, the Great and Terrible. It will save time and energy in the long run. (And if someone would be willing to say in a blurb that I’m more respected and feared than Oz in his heyday, there might be a candy bar in it for you. I just mention.)

In a nonfiction synopsis of any length, your goal is sixfold — and as those annoying disembodied voices on business’ voice mail systems so love to say, please listen carefully, as our options have changed in recent years:

(1) to 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 (even at an agency that specializes in your type of nonfiction, it’s unlikely that either Millicent or the agent will be very well-read in your particular area of expertise);

(2) to demonstrate why readers should care enough about the problem or question to want to read about it (or, to put it another way: why should Millicent care about it?);

(3) to mention in passing who specifically is already interested in this problem or question, to demonstrate already-existing public interest in the subject (the Sierra Club, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the Harpo Marx Fan Club, the entire scientific community, etc.);

(4) to give some indication of how you intend to prove your case, showing the argument in some detail (hey, you’re on your own on this one);

(5) to demonstrate why the book will appeal to a large enough market niche to make publishing it worthwhile (not the same thing as official, organized interest, necessarily), and

(6) to show beyond any reasonable question that you are the best-qualified person in the universe to write the book (not, alas, always self-evident to our Millie).

In answer to that immense gulp I just heard: yes, a nonfiction writer does need to pull that off in anywhere from 1-5 pages, depending upon what the agent, publishing house, or contest rules request. I’m not entirely sure that I proved half that much in my master’s thesis.

And let me tell you, it was a pretty good master’s thesis. Oz was impressed, I’m told.

Nonfiction writers tend to have been stellar students, so I’m not at all astonished to see a plethora of hands politely raised already. Good students are frequently full of questions. “But Anne,” many of you point out politely — and believe me, I appreciate it. “That list above reads strikingly like the goals of a book proposal, a lengthy, heavily-detailed document that, correct me it I’m wrong, entire multi-page sections devoted to each of the numbered issues above. If I’m expected to accomplish all of that heavy lifting in the synopsis, what on earth am I supposed to be accomplishing in the proposal?”

The same thing, actually, but at greater length and with more evidence. Next question?

Just kidding; no need to burst into tears at the prospect. Lean in closer, and I’ll let you in on a little well-kept professional secret: a good nonfiction synopsis is not just a summary of the book’s argument, but a super-short book proposal.

Think of it as proposal concentrate. Add a sample chapter, a competitive market analysis, and an annotated table of contents, stir, and hey, you’ve got a book proposal. Not as tasty as fresh-squeezed, perhaps, but Millicent doesn’t have time to watch you argue it from scratch at the query packet stage.

I can feel you tensing up, but seriously, there’s no need. If you can write a book proposal — and you can, if you know enough about your subject matter to write a book — you can construct a really good nonfiction synopsis.

Where to begin, you ask? Well, I used to tell everyone who would listen that the argument was the most important element of a nonfiction synopsis — if it doesn’t come across as coherent and well-reasoned, after all, the book project is sunk. However, watching how nonfiction books are being marketed and bought these days, I’ve changed my tune. (To Dum de dum dum TO ME, apparently.)

Now, Oz the Great and Terrible is telling you that the single most vital aspect of a successful nonfiction synopsis lies in framing the central question of the book in a way that makes it appear not only interesting to Millicent – who, let’s face it, is almost certainly not going to be a specialist in your subject area; she was (or is) an English major, probably at a highly respected New England college — but likely to catch the notoriously fickle eye of the media. Basically, the synopsis needs to present the book’s concept as easy to promote to an already-existing audience.

If you doubt that, take a quick run to your local megabookstore and take a gander at how many political memoirs are coming out this month. It’s not that their subject matter is necessarily more fascinating than other nonfiction topics, or even, in many cases, that the author has such a terrific platform for telling the behind-the-scenes story. (The classic response of White House officials to tell-all books has historically been, “Who? Oh, didn’t he work here once for a week? I don’t even remember what he looked like.”) No, it’s that even the most poorly-written of these books are likely to be discussed on television and radio shows already devoted to such topics.

Hey, the 24-hour news cycle doesn’t feed itself, you know.

Thus, at the risk of observing the obvious, a query packet synopsis that makes Millicent exclaim by the end of the first paragraph, “Oh, this one would be a cinch to promote!” is far, far more likely to generate a request to see the book proposal than one that prompts her to muse, “Hmm, this is beautifully written. Too bad only four people in Southwestern Montana will be interested.”

Up go the hands again. “Excuse me, Anne? I had gathered from your Querypalooza series — conveniently gathered for the benefit of those who missed it under the category of that name on the archive list at the bottom right-hand side of this page — that I was supposed to use the platform paragraph of my query to make the case that a readership already exists for my book. Wouldn’t tackling that again here be redundant?”

Ah, but synopses often end up places that query letters do not. A 1-page nonfiction synopsis might, for instance, sit by the phone for easy reference while an agent pitches the proposal to an editor; a 5-page synopsis might get circulated to an editorial committee before the acquiring editor makes and offer. The better a micro-proposal it is, the better legwork it can do for its writer.

That being said, the synopsis’ presentation of how and why the central problem of the book is typically a bit different from the query’s. It’s longer, for one thing, and less likely to include an explicit statement of how many articles The New York Times has run on the subject within the last two years.

It’s also more likely to be in the form of a story — and before any of you writing books on particle physics start guffawing, hear me out.

Every problem can be framed in the form of a tale; if you doubt that, just crack open any 7th-grade math textbook and take a gander at the word problems. While a purely technical exposition may well seem dry to the non-specialist, vividly-told real-world example of what can and does go wrong if the central problem of the book is not solves can instantly answer the questions, “So why will anybody care about this?” A gripping anecdote can serve the same function for a historical account.

So why not open your synopsis with a gripping one- or two-paragraph anecdote that illustrates what’s at stake in solving the problem tackled by the book?

Don’t laugh — it works. Especially for any sort of biography or memoir, a brief foray into storytelling can demonstrate not only that the writer is a fine storyteller, but can provide an intriguing entree to a subject that might at first glance appear dull to the non-specialist. Which, for example, does a better job of explaining the importance of breakthrough in sewing machine technology, this:

In the old days, a surprising number of textile workers lost fingers or even hands in industrial sewing machine accidents. Tamlyn Baker pondered the problem for forty-five years, invented a new kind of threading machine, then died in obscurity.

Or this:

The thread broke: for the eighth time that month, a burlap sack-maker lost a finger. Like the others, this woman would be fired and go home to tell her children to prepare to starve. Tamlyn swore once again to perfect her hands-free threading device, even if she had to burn every candle in the Midwest staying up to do it.

Okay, so the latter is a trifle melodramatic — but if you were Millicent, which book proposal would you request?

The second most important element of a nonfiction synopsis is the argument: it’s imperative that the synopsis-reader be able to follow it. Show it in logical order, rather than jumping around or leaving pieces out. No need to be pedantic about it, of course: In Chapter Eight… is not a transition likely to impress Millicent with your storytelling acumen.

Why is showing the basic argument of the book so important? Well, in a nonfiction synopsis, you should not only show the content of the book, but also that you can argue coherently.

Yes, you in the tenth row? “But Anne, this seems counterintuitive. Wouldn’t the best way for an agent or editor to check out my argumentative style be to, you know, read my manuscript? Or at least my proposal?”

I could shoot that one down right away, but first, let’s all take a refreshing mental holiday and picture how much easier all of our lives would be people in the publishing industry actually thought that way. Ah, that’s nice: a world where writers’ talent was judged solely by thoughtful, well-paid, prose-loving agents and editors, lounging on comfy sofas in sun-drenched lofts, languidly turning over page after page of entire manuscripts sent to them by aspiring authors because they have literally nothing else to do all day.

And look, outside that massive loft window — do I see a pig flying by, with Jean Harlow on his back, waving sparklers and smooching Clark Gable?

Okay, back to the real world: realistically, a nonfiction synopsis does indeed need to encapsulate the argument that it takes an entire book to make in just a couple of pages — or at least to establish the central question and indicate how you’re going to go about answering it.

Think of it as a tap-dancing audition, your two-minute chance to show your fancy footwork: if you argue well enough here, an agent (or editor at a small publishing house) will ask to see the argument in the book.

Did I just hear some gasps out there? “Two minutes?” a few of you squeak. “How closely can she possibly read my synopsis in that short amount of time? The one-page version perhaps, but the 5-page?”

I didn’t mean to startle you — but yes, that’s about the maximum your synopsis will have under an agent’s (or, more likely, Millicent’s) bloodshot, overworked eyes. Contrary to popular opinion, nonfiction queries and submissions tend not to be treated to much closer or more respectful readings than novels these days — and that’s saying something.

Popular opinion may have a point here, at least at the agency level, because nonfiction has historically been quite a bit easier to sell to the major publishing houses than fiction. At this point in publishing history, though, the market is so tight that it just doesn’t make strategic sense for nonfiction writers to assume that they — or, more accurately, we — don’t need to present book projects as professionally and eye-catchingly as novelists do.

So assume two minutes, maximum, possibly less. Let’s face it, this isn’t a lot of time to establish an argument much more complicated than the recipe for your sainted mother’s cream of tomato soup.

Even if Mom’s methodology consisted primarily of opening a can of Campbell’s, you may find yourself in a descriptive pickle.

It is more than enough page space, however, to demonstrate that you have the writing skills to make an argument where each sentence leads logically to the next. It’s also enough time to show that you have a coherent plan for proving your propositions, and for indicating what evidence you intend to use.

If I seem to be harping on the necessity of making a COMPLETE, if skeletal, argument here, it’s because the single most common mistake nonfiction synopsizers make is to give only PART of the argument, or still worse, only the premise, with no indication of how they intend to make their case. Instead, they use the space to go on a rant about how necessary the book is, essentially squandering precious argumentative space with marketing jargon and premise.

But a solid underlying argument is the sine qua non of the nonfiction synopsis. Period. If it doesn’t appear to hold water — yes, even in a 1-page synopsis — the book simply isn’t going to strike the industry as marketable.

To make it appear as solid in the synopsis as I’m sure it is in the proposal and/or manuscript, don’t forget to mention what kind of evidence you will be using to support your claims. Have you done extensive research? Exhaustive interviews? Hung out with the right people?

If you have a professional background in the subject matter of your book that unquestionably renders you an expert, or personal experience that gives you a unique insight into the subject, try to work that into the synopsis, early on. Otherwise, stick to the subject matter and explain what your book is going to teach people about it;

I use the term teach advisedly, because it is often quite helpful for synopsis writers to think of the task as producing a course overview for the lesson that is the book’s content: how will this book help readers, and what kind of readers will it help? Ultimately, how will both these readers and the world around them be better off because they read this book?

Oh, you don’t think your work is that important? If you don’t believe that your writing is capable of making the world a better place, why put in all of the effort to write it, break your heart querying, or bite your nails down to the elbow while you are waiting to hear yea or nay on your book proposal?

Once you have made the book’s worth clear, how about demonstrating precisely what about your approach will captivate those readers as no other will? Of course, I’m not talking about TELLING a potential agent or editor how terrific the book is — that’s the book proposal’s job, right? — but SHOWING that you can write the heck out of this topic.

Remember, it’s your job to make your subject matter sound absolutely fascinating. To achieve this successfully, a good nonfiction synopsis needs to show how the book’s take on the topic on it is original.

At the risk of repeating myself, in order to do that, you are going to have to spell out your argument. Not merely in generalities, but in sufficient detail that — everyone chant it with me now — an agent, editor, or contest judge could understand it sufficiently to describe it to someone else without having read the book.

Because, let’s face it, that’s precisely what Millicent the agency screener is going to have to do in order to get her boss to ask to see your book proposal or manuscript — and what her cousin Maury the editorial assistant will have to do to get his boss even to consider publishing it.

Have I convinced you yet that you really do need to present a cohesive, well-argued theory here? And did I happen to mention the importance of its being cohesive?

Easier said than done, of course. In the author’s mind, the argument often lies the details, not in the larger, more theoretical points. How can you narrow it down? It’s 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.

Oh, don’t groan. If you’re writing a nonfiction book, you are going to need to pull together a chapter-by-chapter overview anyway, to include in your book proposal: it’s called the annotated table of contents. This moniker is a tad misleading, because it brings to mind the simple chapter title + page number tables of contents we’ve all seen in published books. An annotated table of contents consists of the titles in order, yes, but it also contains a paragraph or two about the argument or material to be presented in that chapter.

For tips on how to pull this off successfully, please see the HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL category on the list at right. I’ll still be here when you get back.

Don’t get so caught up in reproducing the argument in the synopsis, though, that you overlook working in a brief explanation of why the world needs your book, and why you are the best person imaginable to write it. This is typically the greatest difference between a fiction and a nonfiction synopsis: while a platform always helps for a novelist, it’s often not practicable for a science fiction writer to say, “I’m an expert on life on the planet Targ, having lived there for forty-seven Targian years (two months our time),” is it?

If you are writing on a subject that has already been well-trodden by past authors, it’s even more vital to make these points clear. The synopsis needs to render it apparent to Millicent and Maury at a glance why your book is different and better than what’s already on the market.

In answer to the small, instinctive moans of protest that just escaped from your gullet: yes, this is repetitive with material you will cover in your book proposal. As I mentioned above, in most of the contexts in which your synopsis will travel — tucked into an envelope with a query letter; accompanying a sample chapter or contest entry; floating around a publishing house after an editor has already fallen in love with your proposal — the reader will not also be clutching your proposal.

In other words: don’t count on its being available to make your case. Your goal should be to produce a synopsis that shows off your writing skills, the strength of your argument, and the inherent marketability of your book in a fraction of the space allotted to a proposal.

As always, there is no need to be heavy-handed in your own praise to achieve this, either. To prove it to you, I’m going to give you a sample opening, modest enough that it would strike no one as overbearing. Read carefully, as there will be a pop quiz afterward to see if you can spot the ways that this paragraph achieves Goals #3 and #4:

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 the US’s 1.3 million snowboarding enthusiasts, MOUNTAINS MY WAY is the first to be written by a geologist. Seen through the eyes of a professional rock hound with thirty years of experience in the field, the reader is introduced to mountains as more than an array of cold, hard rocks: mountains emerge as a historical document, teeming with life and redolent of all of the stages of human history.

How did you do? Give yourself points if you noticed that the opening question was an excellent hook: it grabbed the reader, showing immediately how this book might relate to the reader’s practical life; a rhetorical question for which the book itself provides an answer is a great way to establish a book’s appeal at the very beginning of the synopsis.

Also, pat yourself on the back fifty times if you zeroed in on the subtle way in which this paragraph dissed the competition — the implication here is that the authors all previous books on the subject were such boneheads that THEY thought mountains were just collections of rocks.

No one is naming names here, but those authors know who they are. Shame on you.

Take yourself out for a cupcake if you noted the clever (if I do say so myself) use of demographic information. (Which I made up wholesale for example’s sake, so for heaven’s sake, don’t quote it elsewhere.) If you have statistics on your prospective market, this is the place to mention them — here, and in your query letter, and in your pitch. As in:

Currently, two million Americans have been diagnosed with agoraphobia, yet there are few self-help books out there for them — and only one that is actually written by an agoraphobic, someone who truly understands what it feels like to be shut in by fear.

Why is it so important to hammer home the statistics in every conceivable piece of marketing material for your book? Well, no matter how large the prospective audience for your book is (unless it is an already such a well-covered market that anyone in the industry could reasonably be expected know about it, such as golf fans), you can’t ever, ever assume that an agent or editor will be aware of its size.

ALWAYS assume that they will underestimate it — and thus the market appeal of your book. Oz, the Great and Terrible, tells you that more often than not, they will.

While Oz’ booming tones are echoing around in your brainpan, I think I shall end for the day, so all of your nonfiction writers out there may go off and meditate upon your target demographic and why it desperately needs your book. Join me tomorrow for another Synopsispalooza post, everyone, and keep up the good work!

Synopsispalooza, Part V: feeling a trifle hemmed in by those length restrictions, are we?

centurians in bondage

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 essential 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!

Synopsispalooza, Part IV: getting down to the nitty-gritty, or, is this the part where I get to stomp on Tokyo?

300px-godzilla_1954_extras-1

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.

Which is why, in case any of you recent conference-goers had been wondering, it can be very hard to ask some of the speakers a pertinent question or track down an attending agent for a hallway pitch. They’ve probably been the victims of aspiring writers who mistook momentary interest, the willingness to answer a complex question, or even just plain old politeness for a commitment to a lifetime of non-stop assistance. One doesn’t have to encounter too many such boundary-leapers to start erecting some pretty hefty walls in self-defense.

Oh, I understand the impulse to push it from the aspiring writer’s perspective: since can be so hard to catch a pro’s eye that when you meet someone in the know who is actually nice to you, it can feel like the beginning of a friendship. And it may be — down the line. But from the pro’s point of view, all that friendly interaction was, or could possibly be construed as being, is just that, a friendly interaction with a stranger.

So imagine the pro’s surprise when she arrives back in her office to find five e-mails from that stranger, each more desperate and demanding than the last.

Wildly different understandings of the same interaction are especially prevalent at conferences that schedule pitching appointments for attendees. Most first-time pitchers walk into their sessions so terrified that if the agent or editor smiles even a little and listens sympathetically, they just melt. Here, at last, is a personal connection in an industry that can seem appallingly impersonal from the outside. So when the agent or editor concludes the meeting with a fairly standard request for pages, these pitchers sometimes conclude that the pro only made the request to be nice; s/he couldn’t possibly have meant it.

That’s the less common reaction. The significantly more common is to act as though the agent or editor has already committed to taking on the book. If not actually serving as best man or maid of honor at the writer’s wedding.

Yes, really — I see it at conferences all the time. The writer rushes home, instantly prints up his manuscript, and overnights it to his new friend. Or she rushes home, opens her e-mail account, and instantly sends the requested pages as an attachment to her new friend. Even if they received requests from other agents or editors, they won’t send ‘em out — that might offend the new friend, who clearly by now has a deep stake in signing the writer.

Then both writers fill Hefty bags with Doritos and plop themselves down between their telephones and their computers, waiting for the positive response that will doubtless come any minute now. And they wait.

Many of them are still waiting, in this era where some agencies have policies where no response equals assumed rejection. Others are stunned to receive form-letter rejections that contain no mention of their positive personal interaction at the conference at all. Some are unwise enough to follow up upon either of these reactions with a hurt or angry e-mail to that faithless new friend.

Who will, I guarantee you, be mystified to receive it. “Why is this writer taking my rejection so personally,” they murmur to their screeners, “not to mention so unprofessionally? We talked for five minutes at a conference; it’s not as though I made a commitment to help him. It’s my job to talk to writers at conferences, after all.”

“Hey, look,” Millicent says, pointing at her boss’ e-mail inbox, “your new protégé has just sent you yet another e-mail. Ooh, there’s a third. And a fourth!”

The agent buries her head in her hands. “Cancel my e-mail account. I’m moving to Peru to become a llama herder.”

What we have here, my friends, is a failure to communicate. Agents, editors, conference speakers, and writing gurus are nice to aspiring writers, when they are, because they are nice people, not because any of us (not the sane ones among us, anyway) are likely to pick a single aspirant at random and decide to devote all of our resources to helping him. Any of us who interact with aspiring writers on a regular basis meet hundreds, if not thousands, of people just burning for a break, yet not one of us possesses the magical ability to stare deeply into the eyes of a writer we’ve just met, assess the talent coiled like a spring in that psyche, and determine whether she, alone of those thousands, is worth breaking a few rules to help get into print. Nor are most of us living lives of such leisure that we have unlimited time or resources to devote to helping total strangers.

Yes, yes, I know: this blog is devoted to helping total strangers along the road to publication, and I do in fact post almost every day. Don’t quibble; I’m on a roll here.

Yet that level of instant, unlimited devotion is precisely what many aspiring writers simply assume is the natural next step after a pleasant initial interaction with a publishing professional. While most, thank goodness, have the intrinsic good sense or Mom-inculcated good manners not to start demanding favors instantly or barrage that nice pro with e-mails asking for advice or a leg up, the few who do are so shameless that, alas, they give all aspiring writers a bad name.

The moral: sometimes, a pleasant conversation at a conference is just a pleasant conversation at a conference. Don’t assume that polite interest in your writing equals a commitment to help you promote it. And never, ever, EVER risk alienating the rare pro who is willing to give a little free advice by presuming that the proper response to an act of kindness is to treat it as an invitation to ask for still more favors.

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 MANUSCRIPT category on the list at right. Or you could wait until later in the autumn, when I shall be launching into Formatpalooza.)

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 is 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.

I heard that monumental collective gasp of dread. Don’t worry — in the days to come, I shall be talking about ways in which you can tweak your synopsis in order to convey that lovely impression.

For the nonce, 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: I guess it really is time for a Formatpalooza.

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 time. If I’m on a rampage, I might as well be thorough. Keep up the good work!

Synopsispalooza, Part III: keeping some of those plot cats concealed in the bag

concealed cat

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.

Next time, I’m going to be returning to these same examples with a more technical eye, to see how the smaller structural and presentation issues play into a synopsis’ success. Keep up the good work!

Synopsispalooza, Part II: wait — what am I being asked to do this time?

Athene's birth from the head of Zeus

Welcome back to the second installment of Synopsispalooza, Author! Author!’s celebration of the trauma chagrin distressing practical imperative challenging necessity of compressing a deliciously complex, breathtakingly nuanced 400-book into a 5-page summary in standard format. Or whatever length the agent of your dreams or contest of your desires has seen fit to request.

I cannot emphasize that last part strongly enough: although there actually are a couple of standard lengths for synopses in the publishing world, there is no such thing as a standard length for synopses at the query and submission stage. It is your responsibility to check each and every agency’s guidelines to see whether the agent you have chosen to approach prefers a 1-page synopsis, 3, 5, or 8.

Or perhaps 2. Had I mentioned that there was no length standard for querying and submission packets, over and above individual agencies’ expressed preferences?

Or that it is well worth the extra five or ten minutes to double-check whether the agency has a policy on the subject, or if the agent of your dreams once gave a published interview in which she deplored being sent 5-page synopses instead of the 2 1/2 pages for which her heart yearns? As I pointed out in Synopsispalooza I, it never pays to assume that every agency means the same thing by the term synopsis: any given agency may well have a specific reason for wanting something different than all the others.

It’s only polite to respect that preference. And only prudent to do a web search on each agent’s name before you stuff the synopsis you already have on hand into an envelope.

Fortunately, this information is usually quite easy to find: after all, it’s in the agency’s own interest to be clear on the subject. Check the agency’s listing in one of the standard agency guides or its website. (If it has one; a surprisingly hefty percentage still don’t.) And always, always, ALWAYS follow any guidelines set forth in the communication requesting materials.

Yes, I am indeed saying what you think I’m saying: you wouldn’t believe how often, in the heat of post-request excitement, submitters simply disregard the instructions about what they’re supposed to send. Yet another reason for not stopping your life in its tracks to send out requested materials within hours of receiving that yes, eh?

Perhaps less understandably, queriers frequently seem to forget to consult either a guide or the relevant website — or both, since sometimes an agency’s guide listing and the submission guidelines on its website contain different information. When in doubt, go with the website’s restrictions: they’ve probably been updated more recently. Guide listings sometimes remain unchanged for years on end.

A good trick to help avoid the first mistake: do your homework, instead of blithely assuming that every agency must have identical expectations.

They don’t — and they expect writers serious about getting published to be aware of that. If the agency has made the information publicly available, Millicent the agency screener will expect any querier or submitter to be familiar with it. As will her boss.

Seriously, Millicent is not going to consider ignorance a legitimate defense. If your query packet does not include the 4-page synopsis her agency expects, she may well regard that as indicative of a lack of authorial seriousness, or at the very least lack of attention to the details upon which the publishing industry run. Since disregarding stated guidelines is so very common and it’s Millicent’s job to narrow down the competitive field for the very few new client slots her agency has available in any given year, she may well have been instructed to regard a 1-page synopsis, a 5-page synopsis, or no synopsis at all as the agency’s standard rejection triggers.

Why might a demonstrated lack of familiarity with an agency’s querying or submission guidelines — which are, lest I should not yet have made this point sufficiently, likely to differ from other agencies’ — raise red flags for Millicent? Readers who made it through my recent Querypalooza series (or, indeed, this afternoon’s post), feel free to shout out the answer: because a writer who isn’t very good at following directions is inherently more likely to be a time-consuming client than one who shines at producing what s/he is asked to produce.

I hear some annoyed huffing out there, don’t I? “Aren’t you borrowing trouble here, Anne?” some of you ask, arms aggressively akimbo. “Not stuffing the right array of things into a query packet could simply be a matter of having found out about an agent from writers’ forum or one of the many listing websites, rather than having plunked down hard cash for a Herman Guide or tracked down the agency’s website. If agents were REALLY serious about wanting everyone who approaches them to adhere to the guidelines on their sites, wouldn’t they make sure that the same information appears in every conceivable listing, anywhere?”

Well, that might be the case, if agents had infinite time on their hands (they don’t) or if most of the information on fora and secondary sites you mentioned were first-hand (it seldom is). But as I MAY have pointed out once or twice in the past, querying and submission standards are not designed to make life easier for writers; an agency sets its up to meet its own internal needs.

The advantage of relying upon one of the more credible information sources — Jeff Herman’s guide, Guide to Literary Agents, the Publishers’ Marketplace member listings, individual agencies’ websites — is that the information there comes directly from the agencies themselves. Notwithstanding the fact that these sources may occasionally provide mutually contradictory guidelines, you can at least be certain that someone at the agency you are planning to approach has at least heard of them.

Not so with a writers’ forum, an agency listing site, or even — brace yourselves, inveterate conference-goers — what an individual agent might have said in response to a question at a conference. While writers can glean useful information this way, it’s almost invariably second- or third-hand: it may be accurate, but it’s not necessarily what the agent or agency you’re planning to approach would like potential clients to know about them.

So while searching fora and generalist sites can be a good way to come up with a list of agents to query, that shouldn’t be a savvy writer’s only stop. Check out what the agency has to say for itself — because I can tell you now, their Millicent will assume that you are intimately familiar with its stated guidelines, and judge your queries and submissions accordingly.

Besides — and I’m kind of surprised that this little tidbit isn’t more widely known — it tends to drive people who have devoted their lives to the production of books NUTS to encounter the increasingly common attitude that to conduct a 20-second web search IS to have done research. Until fairly recently, conducting research meant actually going to a library or bookstore and looking into a book, a practice that people who sold them for a living really, really condoned.

They miss the days when that was common. They pine for those days.

Trust me on this one: aspiring writers who whine, “But how I was I supposed to know that you wanted a 1-page synopsis rather than the 5-page one the last agency wanted?” when that information is clearly included in a well-respected guide that anyone in North America could have walked into a bookstore and bought do not win friends easily at the average agency.

Unfortunately, from Millicent’s side of the desk, the other problem I mentioned, when queriers get so caught up in the excitement of querying or submission that they just forget to do every step recommended in the guidelines, looks virtually identical to poor research. The over-excited are often penalized as a result.

So how might one avoid that dreadful fate? Here are a few guidelines of my own.

For a query packet:

1. Track down the agency’s SPECIFIC guidelines.
You saw that one coming, didn’t you? Never, ever assume that any given agency will want to see exactly what all the others do.

Yes, even if you heard an agent at a writers’ conference swear up and down that everyone currently practicing her profession does. It’s just not true — unless she was talking about professionalism, attention to detail, courtesy, and submissions in standard manuscript format. (And if you don’t know what that last one is, please see the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list at right before you even consider approaching an agent. Trust me on this one; you’ll be much happier for it at submission time.)

2. Take out a sheet of paper and make a checklist of EVERYTHING those guidelines request.
Don’t trust your memory, especially if you are querying several agents at once. Details can blur under stress.

3. Follow that checklist whilst constructing your query packet.
Again, you probably saw that one coming.

4. Before you seal the query packet (or hit the SEND button), go over your checklist again to make absolutely certain you’ve done everything on it.
Double-checking is the key. If you’re too nervous to feel confident doing this — and many aspiring writers are total nervous wrecks on the eve of querying, so don’t be shy about asking for help — ask your significant other, close friend, obsessive-compulsive sister, or some other detail-oriented person who cares about you to run the final check for you.

Sounds like overkill, but believe me, every agented and published writer in the world can tell you either a first- or second-hand horror story about the time s/he realized after s/he sealed the envelope/popped it in the mailbox/it was halfway to Manhattan that s/he had omitted some necessary part of the packet. Extra care will both help you sleep better at night and increase your query packet’s chances of charming Millicent.

5. Repeat Steps 1-4 for every agency you query.
Yes, really. It’s a waste of your valuable time to send off a query packet that contains a rejection trigger.

For a submission packet (and I warn you, some of these are going to sound awfully familiar)

1. Read over the request for materials and make a checklist of what you’re being asked to send.
Yes, I mean a physical list, written on actual paper. Don’t tell me that you can do it in your head: many a mis-packed packet has started life with that assertion.

Don’t tell me that you’re in too much of a hurry to do this before you get your manuscript out the door. Must I disturb your slumbers by telling you horror stories about writers who didn’t?

If the request came after a successful pitch, you may have to rely upon your recollections of what’s said, but if the agent asked you in writing for pages, don’t make the EXTREMELY COMMON mistake of just assuming that your first excited reading caught all of the facts. Go over your recollection several times and make a list of what to do.

2. Track down the agency’s SPECIFIC guidelines.
Yes, you should do this even if the requesting agent was very detailed about what s/he wanted. Chances are, the agent of your dreams shares a Millicent with other member agents; if the agency expects submissions to look a certain way, so will the communal Millicent.

3. Have a non-writer go over the request for materials, the agency in question’s guidelines, AND its website, making a separate list of all the agency’s requirements and requests.
No, it’s not sufficient to have someone else double-check your list at the submission stage — this packet is just too important. Have a buddy generate a separate list, to maximize the probability that nothing will be left off.

Why a non-writer, you ask? S/he’s less likely to get swept up in the excitement of the moment. Indeed, if you pick someone obtuse enough, s/he is quite likely to ask with a completely straight face while doing it, “So, when is the book coming out?”

As any agented writer can tell you, the proportion of the general population that doesn’t understand the difference between landing an agent and selling a book to a publishing house is positively depressing. Expect a few of your kith and kin to express actual disappointment when the agent of your dreams offers to represent you: seriously, that fantasy about how really great books magically get picked up by the perfect agent the instant the author types THE END, get sold to a publisher the following day, come out the week after, and land the author on Oprah is astonishingly pervasive.

Hey, I don’t make this stuff up. I just tell you about it, so you won’t get blindsided.

4. Compare and consolidate the two lists.
If there are logical discrepancies, go back and find out which is correct. (Hint: you are more likely to be able to reuse your fact-checker if you don’t do #4 in front of her.)

5. Make absolutely certain that your submission is in standard manuscript format.
I couldn’t resist throwing this in, because so many submissions fall victim to unprofessional formatting. If you have never seen a professional manuscript in person (and no, it does not resemble a published book in several significant respects), please go through the checklist under the THE MANUSCRIPT FORMATTING RULES category at the top of the list at right.

Hey, I put it at the top of the archive list for a reason. Proper formatting honestly is that important to the success of a submission.

I usually add a bunch of disclaimers about how there are many such lists floating around the web, all claiming to be definitive, but it’s tiring to pretend that there isn’t a lot of misinformation out there. I’ve won a major literary contest and sold two books using the guidelines I show on this site; my clients have sold many books and win literary awards relying upon these guidelines. I know agents who refer new clients to my website for these guidelines.

I am, in short, quite confident that my list will work for you. Use it with my blessings.

So as far as I know, there is literally no debate amongst professional book writers about what is required in a manuscript — although to be fair, the standards for short stories and articles are different. For any readers who still throw up their hands and complain that there isn’t a comprehensive set of guidelines out there, all I can suggest is maybe you’re spending a bit too much time surfing and not enough time talking to the pros.

That wasn’t as peevish as it sounded: seriously, if you’re tied up in knots because there isn’t any army out there forcing every single advice-giver to conform to a single set of suggestions, sign up for a writers’ conference or go to a book signing. Pretty much anyone in the industry will be perfectly happy to refer you to a credible source for formatting rules. Perhaps they’ll even send you back here.

But fair warning: almost without exception, they will be miffed at an aspiring writer who complains that an Internet search did not turn up definitive information. As I mentioned above, to book people, that’s simply not doing research.

6. Before you seal the submission packet, dig out the final version of that to-do list and triple-check that you did everything on it.
Again, if you’re not a very detail-oriented person — at least not when you’re extremely nervous — have someone else do the final flight-check. Often, significant others are THRILLED to be helping.

I spy a positive forest of raised hands out there. “But Anne,” all of you hand-raisers shout in chorus, “I’m a trifle confused. Why are you bringing query and submission packet assembly up so pointedly at the beginning of this series on synopsis-writing?”

Oh, hadn’t I mentioned that it’s extremely common for aspiring writers to construct a synopsis and tuck it into every query and submission packet they send out, regardless of what any given agency wants to see? Or that quite a few queriers simply tuck a synopsis into every query envelope?

Whenever you are scanning guidelines, be it for a query packet, submission, or contest entry, pay extra-close attention to length restrictions for synopses. Millicents are known for rejecting a too-long or too-short synopsis on sight. Why? Well, one that is much shorter will make you look as if your story is unable to sustain a longer exposition; if it is much longer, you will look as though you aren’t aware of the standard.

Either way, the results can be fatal to your submission. (See my earlier comment about the desirability of not wasting your own valuable time by assembling self-rejecting submission packets.)

If, as is the case with many agency guidelines, a particular agency does not set a length limit, be grateful: they’re leaving it up to you, not expecting you to read their minds and guess what they consider the industry standard. Use the length that you feel best represents your book, but I would STRONGLY advise not to go over 5 pages, double-spaced.

Yes, yes, I know: some agencies do ask for 8-page synopses. Obviously, if that’s what they ask to see, give it to them. Just don’t assume that any agency that doesn’t ask for a synopsis that long will be happy to see 8 pages fall out of your query packet.

That forest of raised hands just waved in the breeze. Yes? “But Anne, this is all very useful, but I want to know what should go in my synopsis. What works, and what doesn’t?”

Glad you asked, hand-wavers. The answer is not going to sound sexy, I’m afraid, but come closer, and I’ll let you in on the secret:

For fiction, stick to the plot of the novel, including enough vivid detail to make the synopsis interesting to read. Oh, and make sure the writing is impeccable — and, ideally, reflective of the voice of the book.

For nonfiction, begin with a single paragraph about (a) why there is a solid market already available for this book and (b) why your background/research/approach renders you the perfect person to fill that market niche. Then present the book’s argument in a straightforward manner, showing how each chapter will build upon the one before to prove your case as a whole. Give some indication of what evidence you will use to back up your points.

For either, make sure to allot sufficient time to craft a competent, professional synopsis — as well as sufficient buffing time to render it gorgeous. Let’s face it, unlike some of the more — let’s see, how shall I describe them? — fulfilling parts of writing and promoting a book, a synopsis is unlikely to spring into your head fully-formed, like Athene; most writers have to flog the muses quite a bit to produce a synopsis they like.

Too few aspiring writers do, apparently preferring instead to toss together something at the last minute before sending out a submission or contest entry. (Especially a contest entry. I’ve been a judge many times; I know.)

I have my own theories about why otherwise sane and reasonable people might tumble into this particular strategic error. Not being aware that a synopsis would be required seems to be a common reason, as does resentment at having to produce it at all. Or just not being familiar with the rigors of writing one. Regardless, it’s just basic common sense to recognize that synopses are marketing materials, and should be taken as seriously as anything else you write.

Yes, no matter how beautifully-written your book may happen to be. Miss America may be beautiful au naturale, for all any of us know, but you can bet your last pair of socks that at even the earliest stage of going for the title, she takes the time to put on her makeup with care.

On the bright side, since almost everyone just throws a synopsis together, impressing an agent with one actually isn’t as hard as it seems at first blush. Being able to include a couple of stunning visceral details, for instance, is going to make you look like a better writer — almost everyone just summarizes vaguely.

My readers, of course, are far, far too savvy to make that mistake, right? Right? Have half of you fainted?

Even if you are not planning to send out queries or submissions anytime soon (much to those sore-backed muses’ relief), I STRONGLY recommend investing the time in generating and polishing a synopsis BEFORE you are at all likely to need to use it. That way, you will never you find yourself in a position of saying in a pitch meeting, “A 5-page synopsis? Tomorrow? Um, absolutely.”

Yes, it happens. As I mentioned in passing yesterday, it’s actually not all that uncommon for agented and published writers to be asked to provide synopses for books they have not yet written. In some ways, this is easier: when all a writer has in mind is the general outlines of the plot, the details are less distracting.

Actually, if you can bear it — you might want to make sure your heart medication is handy before you finish this sentence –it’s a great idea to pull together a couple of different lengths of synopsis to have on hand, so you are prepared when you reach the querying and submission stages to provide whatever the agent in question likes to see.

Crunching any dry cracker should help the nausea subside.

What lengths might you want to have in stock? Well, a 5-page, certainly, as that is the most common request, and perhaps a 3 as well, if you are planning on entering any literary contests anytime soon. It’s getting more common for agents to request a 1-page synopsis, so you might want to hammer out one of those as well.

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!

PS: Please do not panic when you see that the post immediately below this one is not in fact about synopses: in an effort to make up for some missed posting days last week, I shall be inserting posts analyzing the winning entries of theAuthor! Author! Great First Page Made Even Better contest between the next few Synopsispalooza posts. If you are looking for the previous Synopsispalooza post, but are too lazy enslaved to repetitive strain injuries time-strapped to scroll, you’ll find it just one click away here.

Welcome to Synopsispalooza!

Rosie the RiveterRosie the Riveter reversed
Rosie the Riveter3Rosie the Riveter 4

Has everyone recovered from Querypalooza, our early September foray into the joys of all things query-related? Well, I haven’t, either, but that’s not going to stop us from pressing forward into the rest of the material in the query packet, is it?

So welcome to Synopsispalooza, brought to you by popular demand. Although I shall not attempt to replicate the breakneck pace of Querypalooza (three posts per day? Even I can can’t believe that, in retrospect), I can confidently predict that this point-by-point analysis of how to conceive, write, and present a professional-looking synopsis without driving yourself nuts in the process will be as intense as our last series.

You didn’t think I was going to let you send off those query letters you’ve just perfected with just a so-so synopsis, did you? If we’re going to do this unpleasant thing, we might as well take the time to do it right.

That’s actually not a bad motto for any aspiring writer preparing to plunge into the often hair-tearing stress of trying to summarize a 400-page book in 5 pages. Or 3. Or even — sacre bleu! — 1. Practically nobody enjoys writing the blasted things, but given how important they can be to a query or submission packet’s success (yes, really) and the fact that you’re going to be spending hours on end trying to construct one (yes, unfortunately), you might as well invest another few hours in learning the ropes. Think of it as practice for your future life as a career writer.

Does that houseplant flying past my head mean that somebody out there is unhappy with the implication of that last sentence? Yes, Virginia, I’m afraid so: professional writers have to churn out synopses all the time.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that with practice, that oh, God, how can I possibly give any sense of my book in so short a space? does in fact subside. After your third or fourth book, you will probably be able to toss off a synopsis with hardly any brow-mopping at all.

Heck, if you’ve been working with an agent who likes to see synopses for books that his clients are even considering writing — yes, dear Miss V, they do exist — you may well start thinking in synopsis form. I’ve been known to write a synopsis for a 350-page tome just after polishing off the first draft of page 10 of the manuscript.

Pick your jaws off the floor, novelists. All nonfiction authors have to learn to pitch work they haven’t yet written. How would it be possible to construct a book proposal otherwise?

And do stop flinging that greenery, implication-gleaners. “But Anne,” many of you shriek, potted palms already in hand, “I had always thought synopsis-writing was just yet another annoying hoop through which I was going to need to jump in order to land an agent, then swiftly forgotten because I’d never have to use it again. Why would I ever need to write one other than to tuck into a query or submission packet?”

You’re sitting down, I hope? It may come as a surprise to some of you, but synopsis-writing is a task that dogs a professional writer at pretty much every step of her career. Just a few examples how:

* An aspiring writer almost always has to produce one at either the querying or submission stages of finding an agent.

* A nonfiction writer penning a proposal needs to synopsize the book she’s trying to sell, regardless of whether s/he is already represented by an agent.

* Agented writers are often asked to produce a synopsis of a new book projects before they invest much time in writing them, so their agents can assess the concepts’ marketability and start to think about editors who might be interested.

Basically, the more successful you are as a writer of books, the more often you are likely be asked to produce one of the darned things. Thus, synopsis-writing is a fabulous skill to add to your writer’s tool kit as early in your career as possible.

Amazingly frequently, though, writers both aspiring and agented avoid even thinking about the methodology of constructing one of the darned things until the last possible nanosecond before they need one, as if writing an effective synopsis were purely a matter of luck or inspiration. It isn’t. It’s a learned skill.

But don’t panic: we’re going to be spending Synopsispalooza learning it.

What makes me so sure that pretty much every writer out there could use a crash course in the craft of synopsis-writing, or at the very least a refresher? Well, let me ask you something: if you had only an hour to produce a synopsis for your current book project, could you do it?

Okay, what if I asked you for a 1-page synopsis and gave you only 15 minutes?

I’m not asking to be cruel, I assure you: as a working writer, I’ve actually had to produce synopses under deadlines that short. Agented writers run fresh book concepts past their agents all the time, so it’s far from uncommon to hear something like, “Great, I’m having lunch with an editor who might be interested in that tomorrow. Can you get me a synopsis by morning?” Heck, I’ve been asked to pitch a future book whose premise I’d barely discussed with my agent to an editor at a party, so I had to essentially write a synopsis in my head on the spot.

And even when I had longer to crank something out, why would I want to squander my scarce writing time producing a document that will never be seen by my readers, since it’s only for internal agency or publishing house use? I’d rather just do a quick, competent job and get on with the rest of my work.

I’m guessing that chorus of small whimpering sounds means that some of you share the same aspiration.

The second reason I suspect even those of you who have written synopses before could stand a refresher is that you can’t throw a piece of bread at any good-sized writers’ conference in the English-speaking world without hitting at least one writer complaining vociferously about how awful it is to have to summarize a 500-page book in just a couple of pages. I don’t think I’ve ever met a writer at any stage of the game who actually LIKES to write them, but those of us farther along tend to regard them as a necessary evil, a professional obligation to be met quickly and with a minimum of fuss, to get it out of the way.

Judging by conference talk (and, if I’m honest, by the reaction of some of my students when I teach synopsis-writing classes), aspiring writers are more likely to squander their energies on frustration at the size of the task — or resenting the length, as if a 3-page synopsis were much, much harder than a 10-page one. (It isn’t, once you know the ropes.)

Frequently, I meet aspiring writers who seem downright insulted by the imperative to produce synopses for their books at all. “But Anne,” they protest, and who could blame them? “There’s just so much going on in my book. If I could have told the story in just a few pages, I would have written a short story, not a novel!”

A good point, and not an uncommon one: aspiring writers’ complaints usually center on the synopsis’ torturous brevity. Why, your garden-variety querier shakes his fist at Mount Olympus and cries, need it be so cruelly short? What on earth could be the practical difference between reading a 5-page synopsis and a 6-page one, if not to make a higher hurdle for those trying to break into a notoriously hard-to-break-into business? And how much more could even the sharpest-eyed Millicent learn from a 1-page synopsis that she could glean from a descriptive paragraph in a query letter?

I can answer that last one: about three times as much, usually. And the answer to those first two questions is the same: time.

Let’s pause a moment to consider why an industry devoted to promoting book-length works would even want to judge a new writer’s writing and plotting ability by a 5-page synopsis. In order to render this foray more productive, I’m going to suggest you take a gander at a genuinely informative essay in last September’s Barnes & Noble Review by former Random House executive editor-in-chief Daniel Menaker on the state of modern publishing. It’s a bit of a depressing read, admittedly, but I cannot emphasize enough how essential it is to a career writer’s long-term happiness to gain a realistic conception of how the publishing industry works.

In the midst of some jaw-dropping statements like, “Genuine literary discernment is often a liability in editors,” Menaker gives a particularly strong explanation for why, contrary to prevailing writerly rumor, editors expect the books they acquire not to require much editing, raising the submission bar to the point that some agency websites now suggest in their guidelines that queriers pay a freelance editor like yours truly to clean up their manuscripts before even beginning to look for an agent. Quoth Mssr. Menaker:

The sheer book-length nature of books combined with the seemingly inexorable reductions in editorial staffs and the number of submissions most editors receive, to say nothing of the welter of non-editorial tasks that most editors have to perform, including holding the hands of intensely self-absorbed and insecure writers, fielding frequently irate calls from agents, attending endless and vapid and ritualistic meetings, having one largely empty ceremonial lunch after another, supplementing publicity efforts, writing or revising flap copy, ditto catalog copy, refereeing jacket-design disputes, and so on — all these conditions taken together make the job of a trade-book acquisitions editor these days fundamentally impossible. The shrift given to actual close and considered editing almost has to be short and is growing shorter, another very old and evergreen publishing story but truer now than ever before. (Speaking of shortness, the attention-distraction of the Internet and the intrusion of work into everyday life, by means of electronic devices, appear to me to have worked, maybe on a subliminal level, to reduce the length of the average trade hardcover book.)


That’s a mouthful, isn’t it? Which made your intestines contract into the tighter ball, the bit about book length or that slap about writers’ insecurities?

Since rejection feels so personal, it can be hard for an isolated writer to differentiate between rebuffs based upon a weakness in the manuscript itself, a book concept that’s just not likely to sell well in the current market, and a knee-jerk reaction to something as basic as a manuscript length that would be expensive to print and bind. It’s far, far too easy to become bitter or to assume, wrongly, that one’s writing can be the only possible reason for rejection.

Don’t do that to yourself, I implore you. It’s not good for you, and it’s not good for your writing.

I sense some ferns about to be lobbed in my general direction. “What’s the point of depressing us with all this, Anne? We’re all told constantly that publishing is getting harder and harder to break into, but I thought these ‘Palooza posts were devoted to practicalities. So why aren’t you getting on with, say, giving me a template for a winning synopsis?”

Well, in the first place, if you’ve come here for a quick one-size-fits-all formula, Virginia, Author! Author! is probably not the right writers’ community for you. Here, we try not to rip anything out of context: as I like to remind my readers early and often, savvy writers take the time to learn why the publishing industry wants them to jump through a particular hoop. That makes it easier to jump through it with style.

As we’ve already seen with so many aspects of the querying and submission process, confusion about what is required and why often adds considerably to synopsis-writers’ stress. While the tiny teasers required for pitches and query letters are short for practical, easily-understood reasons — the fact that an agent and her screeners need to get through a bunch of ‘em in a limited amount of time, for instance, or the necessity for the letter’s being a single page, which also boils down to a time issue, since the single-page restriction exists to speed up Millicent the agency screener’s progress through the day’s queries — it’s less clear why, say, an agent would ask to see a synopsis of a manuscript he is ostensibly planning to read.

I sympathize with the confusion, but I must say, I always cringe a little when I hear writers express such resentments. I want to take them aside and say, “Honey, you really need to be careful that attitude doesn’t show up on the page — because, honestly, that happens more than you’d think, and it’s never, ever, EVER helpful to the writer.”

Not to say that these feelings are not completely legitimate in and of themselves, or even a healthy, natural response to a task perceived to be enormous. Let’s face it, the first time most of us sit down to do it, it feels as though we’ve been asked to rewrite our entire books from scratch, but in miniature. From a writerly point of view, if a story takes an entire book-length manuscript to tell well, boiling it down to 5 or 3 or even — shout it along with me, campers — sacre bleu!, 1 page seems completely unreasonable, if not actually impossible.

Which it would be, if that were what a synopsis was universally expected to achieve. Fortunately for writers everywhere, it isn’t.

Not by a long shot. Aren’t you glad you were already sitting down?

As I’m going to illustrate over the next week or two — oh, you were expecting this to be a shorter ‘Palooza? — an aspiring writer’s impression of what a synopsis is supposed to be is often quite different from what the pros have become resigned to producing, just as producing a master’s thesis seems like a much, much larger task to those who haven’t written one than those of us who have.

And don’t even get me started on dissertations.

Once a writer comes to understand the actual purpose and uses of the synopsis — some of which are far from self-evident, by the way — s/he usually finds it considerably easier to write. So, explanation maven that I am, I’m going to devote this series to clarifying just what it is you are and aren’t being asked to do in a synopsis, why, and how to avoid the most common pitfalls.

Relax: you can do this. Before I launch into the nitty-gritty of how to distill the essence of a manuscript, already written or otherwise, let’s start with the absolute basics:

A synopsis is a brief overview IN THE PRESENT TENSE of the entire plot of a novel or the whole argument of a book. Unlike an outline, which presents a story arc in a series of bullet points (essentially), a synopsis is fully fleshed-out prose. Ideally, it should be written in a similar voice and tone to the book it summarizes, but even for a first-person novel, it should be written in the third person.

The lone exception on the voice front: a memoir’s synopsis can be written in both the past tense and should be written in the first person. Go figure. (Don’t worry — I’ll be showing you concrete examples of both in the days to come.)

Typically, the professional synopses an already-agented writer would be asked to produce are 5 pages in standard manuscript format (and thus double-spaced, with 1-inch margins, in Times, Times New Roman, or Courier typefaces; see my parenthetical comment about the examples to come). Querying or submission synopses may be the standard 5 pages or shorter, depending upon the requirements of the requesting agent, editor, or contest — so do make sure to double-check any written guidelines an agency’s website, small press’ submission standards, or contest’s rules might provide.

And before you fling that succulent you’ve got concealed behind your back: yes, Virginia, in the series to come, I will be discussing how to write both long and short versions.

For the first few years I blogged, I merely talked about the long form, since it was the industry standard; much shorter, and you’re really talking about a book concept (if you’re unfamiliar with the term, please see the BOOK CONCEPT category at right) or a longish pitch, rather than a plot overview. However, over the last few years (not entirely uncoincidentally, as more and more agents began accepting e-queries), agencies began to request shorter synopses from queriers, often as little as a single page. There’s nothing like an industry standard for a shorter length, though. Sometimes, an agent will ask for 1 or 3, or a contest for 2. It varies.

Let me repeat that a third time, just in case anyone out there missed the vital point: not every agent wants the same length synopsis; there isn’t an absolute industry standard length for a querying, submission, or contest synopsis. So if any of you had been hoping to write a single version to use in every conceivable context, I’m afraid you’re out of luck.

That resentment I mentioned earlier is starting to rise like steam, isn’t it? Yes, in response to that great unspoken shout that just rose from my readership, it would indeed be INFINITELY easier on aspiring writers everywhere if we could simply produce a single submission packet that would fly at any agency in the land.

Feel free to find that maddening — it’s far, far healthier not to deny the emotion. Try punching a pillow until the feeling subsides. Once you’ve calmed down, however, let’s take a look at why an agency or contest might want a shorter synopsis.

Like so much else in the industry, time is the decisive factor: synopses are shorthand reference guides that enable overworked agency staffs (yes, Millicent really is overworked — and often not paid very much to boot) to sort through submissions quickly. And obviously, a 1-page synopsis takes less time to read than a 5-page one.

“Well, duh, Anne,” our Virginia huffs, clearly irate at being used as every essayist’s straw woman for decades. “I also understand the time-saving imperative; you’ve certainly hammered on it often enough. What I don’t understand is this: if the goal is to save time in screening submissions, why would anyone ever ask for a synopsis that was longer than a page? And if Millicent is so darned harried, why wouldn’t she just base her assessment on that descriptive paragraph in the query letter?”

Fabulous questions, Virginia. You’ve come a long way since that question about the existence of Santa Claus.

Remember, though, Ms. V, it’s not as though the average agency or small publishing house reads the query letter and submission side-by-side: they’re often read by different people, under different circumstances — and, in submissions, at different times. Synopses are often read by people who have direct access to neither the initial query nor the manuscript. The marketing department in a publishing house, for instance.

More to the point for aspiring writers, if an agent (or her Millicent) has asked to see the first 50 pages of a manuscript and likes it, she’ll often scan the synopsis to see what happens in the rest of the book. Ditto with contest judges, who have only the synopsis and a few pages of a book in front of them. They may not be checking merely out of curiosity, either: one of the purposes of a novel synopsis is for the writer to demonstrate that he can indeed resolve the conflicts he set up in the premise.

And, of course, some agents will use a synopsis promotionally, to cajole an editor into reading a manuscript — but again, 5-page synopses are traditional for this purpose. As nearly as I can tell, the shorter synopses that have recently become so popular typically aren’t used for marketing outside the agency at all.

Why not? Well, realistically, a 1-page synopsis is just a written pitch, not a genuine plot summary, and thus not all that useful for an agent to have on hand if an editor starts asking pesky-but-predictable follow-up questions like, “Okay, so what happens next?”

Do I hear some confused murmuring out there? Let Virginia be your spokesperson: “Wait — if I have to spend all of this time and effort perfecting a synopsis, why don’t all agents just forward it to editors who might be interested, rather than the entire manuscript of my novel?”

Ah, that would be logical, wouldn’t it? But as with so many other flawed human institutions, logic does not necessarily dictate why things are done the way they are in publishing. Much of the time, tradition does.

Thus, the argument often heard against trying to sell a first novel on synopsis alone: fiction is just not sold that way, my dear. Publishing houses buy on the manuscript itself, not the summary. Nonfiction, by contrast, is seldom sold on a finished manuscript.

So for a novel, the synopsis is primarily a marketing tool for landing an agent, rather than something that sticks with the book throughout the marketing process. I’m not quite sure why agents aren’t more upfront at conferences about the synopsis being primarily an in-house document when they request it. Ditto with pretty much any other non-manuscript materials they request from a novelist — indications of target market, author bio, etc.

For nonfiction, of course, all of these would be included within the aforementioned book proposal — which is why, in case you had been wondering, requiring this kind of information used to be purely the province of the non-fiction agent. Increasingly over the last decade or so, however, fiction writers are being asked to provide this kind of information to save agents — you guessed it — time.

Why is the 5-page synopsis more popular than, say, 3 pages? Well, 5 pages in standard format works out to roughly 1250 words, enough space to give some fairly intense detail. By contrast, a jacket blurb is usually between 100 and 250 words, only enough to give a general impression or set up a premise.

I point this out, because far too many writers new to the biz submit jacket blurbs to agents, editors, and contests, rather than synopses — marketing puff pieces, rather than plot descriptions or argument outlines. This is a mistake: publishing houses have marketing departments for producing advertising copy.

In a query or submission packet synopsis, praise for a manuscript or book proposal, rather than an actual description of its plot or premise, is not going to help Millicent decide whether her boss is likely to be interested in the book in question. In a synopsis from a heretofore-unpublished writer, what the pros want to see is not self-praise, or a claim that every left-handed teenage boy in North America will be drawn to this book (even it it’s true), but some indication of what the book is ABOUT: its protagonist and antagonist, central conflict, setting, and so forth.

In other words, like the query, the synopsis is a poor place to boast. Since the jacket blurb-type synopsis is so common, many agencies use it as — wait for it, Virginia — an easy excuse to reject a submission unread.

Yes, that is a trifle unfair to those new to the biz, now that you mention it, but the logic runs thus: a writer who doesn’t know the difference between a blurb and a synopsis is probably also unfamiliar with other industry norms, such as standard format and turn-around times. Thus (the pros reason), it’s more efficient to throw that fish back, to wait until it grows, before they invest serious amounts of time in frying it.

With such good bait, they really don’t stay up nights worrying about the fish that got away.

“In heaven’s name,” Virginia cries, “WHY? They must let a huge number of really talented writers who don’t happen to know the ropes slip through their nets!”

To take your metaphor for another spin, Virginia, there are a whole lot of fish in the submission sea — and exponentially more in the querying ocean. As I MAY have pointed out once or twice before in this forum, agencies (and contests) typically receive so many well-written submissions that their screeners are actively looking for reasons to reject them, not to accept them.

An unprofessional synopsis is an easy excuse to thin the ranks of the contenders. Sorry to be the one to break that to you.

Before anyone begins pouting: as always, I’m pointing out the intensity of the competition not to depress or intimidate you, but to help you understand just how often good writers get rejected for, well, reasons other than the one we all tend to assume. That fact alone strikes me as excellent incentive to learn what an agency, contest, or small publisher wants to see in a synopsis.

And, to quote the late, great Fats Waller, let him have it just that way.

The hard fact is, they receive so many queries in any given week that they can afford to be as selective as they like about synopses — and ask for any length they want. However much speakers at conferences, writing gurus, and agents themselves speak of the publishing industry as monolithic, it isn’t: individual agents, and thus individual agencies, like different things.

Thus the variation in requested length: submission guidelines are an excellent environment for the expression of individual preferences.

Chant it with me now, campers: every agent, just like every editor and contest judge, is an individual, not an identical cog in a mammoth writing-evaluation machine. An aspiring writer CAN choose ignore their personal preferences and give them all the same thing — submitting a 5-page synopsis to one and all because that’s what she has on hand, for example, rather than the requested 5 to one, 3 to two others, and 1 to the fifth and sixth — but do you really want to begin the relationship by demonstrating an inability to follow directions?

If I ran the universe, the fact that there is no such thing as a standard length for a query or submission synopsis would be far more openly acknowledged. Each agency would present soon-to-query writers with a clear, concise how-to for its preferred synopsis style — and if a writer submitted a back jacket blurb, Millicent would chuckle indulgently, hand-write a nice little note advising the writer to revise and resubmit, then tuck it into an envelope along with the aforementioned clear, concise list.

Or, better yet, every agency in the biz would send a representative to a vast agenting conference, a sort of UN of author representation, where delegates would hammer out a set of universal standards for judging synopses, to take the guesswork out of it once and for all. (You know, the kind of one-size-fits-all expectations most aspiring writers believe exist but do not.) Once codified, bands of laughing nymphs would distribute these helpful standards to every writer currently producing English prose, and bands of freelance editors would set up stalls in the foyers of libraries across the world, to assist aspiring writers in conforming to the new standards.

Unfortunately, as you may perhaps have noticed in recent months, I do not run the universe (or gravity, more’s the pity), so aspiring writers have to deal with the prevailing lack of clear norms. The result is — and I do hate to be the one to break this to you, Virginia — no single synopsis you write is going to please everybody in the industry.

Sounds a bit familiar? It should: the same principle applies to query letters.

As convenient as it would be for aspiring writers everywhere if you could just write the darned thing once and make copies as needed, it’s seldom in your interest to do so. Literally the only pressure for standardization comes from writers, who pretty uniformly wish that there were a single formula, so they could write it once and never think about it again.

You could make the argument that there should be an industry standard until you’re blue in the face, but the fact remains that, in the long run, you will be far, far better off if you give each what s/he asks to see. Just that way.

Well, so much for synopses. Next time, we’ll move on to author bios.

Just kidding; the synopsis is a tall order, and I’m going to walk you through both its construction and past its most common pitfalls. By mid-October, you’ll be advising other writers how to do it — and you’ll have yet another formidable tool in your marketing kit. Trust me, this hammer is going to serve you well for a long, long time.

But keep asking those probing questions, Virginia: this process is far from intuitive. And, as always, keep up the good work!

A brief digression on names, featuring some lighthearted admonitions on being careful how you label people

Helen Burns' shame

Since I have been hammering so hard on the perils of word, phrase, and concept repetition in my recent Frankenstein manuscript series, I thought it might be nice to take a break for a couple of days, if only to stop the more conscientious revisers among you from waking up in the dead of night, screaming, “No! Please! I shall cut the number of eye-distracting conjunctions in my manuscript by half! Just take away the thumbscrews!” After those few days had passed without revision-related screaming abating much, I decided that I was going to take a few baby steps away from the much-stared-at manuscript page and talk about a related topic near and dear to most novelists’ hearts: character naming.

Then, after I have lulled you into a nice, complacent creative reverie, I shall leap right back into the burning issues of revision. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Before I launch into the meat of today’s post, however, I’d like to note the passing of someone I have never met personally, but has been gracing Author! Author! at least once per year as the wry star of one of my all-time favorite anecdotes. Those of you who have been hanging out here at A! A! for a while may remember the late gentleman (may he rest in perpetual peace) who taught us that it’s never, ever safe to assume that one’s audience will share one’s prejudices.

Once upon a time, a professor at Harvard Law School took a sabbatical and joined the faculty at a Washington, D.C.-area law school for a year. After he had been installed in his new office for a week, he realized that he was a bit lonely: he had been tenured for so long that he no longer remembered what it had been like to be the new guy in the faculty lounge.

So, one day, determined to make friends, he walked into that room full of strangers, sat down next to the least intimidating-looking law professor, and introduced himself. They chatted a bit, but the Harvard professor was pretty rusty at small talk. When conversation floundered, he cast his mind back to the last time he had been the new guy, way back in the early 1980s, and resuscitated a tried-and-true question: “So, what does your wife do?”

Much to his astonishment, his new friend broke into a fit of uncontrollable giggles, as if the professor had just said the funniest thing in the world. He laughed so hard that other faculty members turned around to stare.

The Harvard professor didn’t know whether to be piqued or amused at this response. “I’m sorry — doesn’t she work?”

This question abruptly ended the other man’s laughter. “Oh, she does,” he replied dryly, fixing our hero with a glance of singular disdain. “You might possibly have heard of her work, in fact. She’s on the Supreme Court.”

The Harvard professor had, of course, been talking for the last half an hour to Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s husband, Martin. The latter, a fellow of infinite jest, apparently dined out on that story for years.

May you spend eternity telling that one at the dinner parties of the afterlife, Martin. And may all of us down here remember that when speaking to strangers, it behooves you to watch what you say — and especially how you label people — because you do not necessarily know what their backgrounds or beliefs are.

Why is that lesson an important one for aspiring writers to embrace, you ask? Well, all too often, especially in nonfiction, aspiring writers assume that what is funny — or shocking, or ordinary — to them will automatically strike our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, in precisely the same way, resulting in more guffaws and huffs of displeasure over submissions and contest entries than anyone would care to admit. To avoid subjecting your writing to this dreadful fate, bear in mind: no matter how deeply our own kith and kin might share our personal, political, social, etc. views of the world, we can never be sure that the agency screener, editorial assistant, or contest judge to whom we submit our writing will share that worldview.

There endeth today’s parable. Let’s get back to work.

We writers, as I mentioned before the impulse to eulogize sidetracked me, tend to take great pride in our characters’ names. Even when we have simply borrowed our local postmaster’s name for a minor character, combined a freshman roommate’s first name with our least-favorite high school teacher for another, and lifted a period name for a protagonist from an old census list, we are not only pleased with ourselves — we will tell anyone who will listen just how we came up with a name as nifty as Thisbe Holt.

Don’t believe that impulse to be universal? Okay, try this little experiment: walk into any author reading, anywhere in the world, and ask the novelist signing books how he ever thought of those incredibly evocative character names in his novel.

I can tell you now that there is not an author on earth who will laugh and say, “Evocative? What’s evocative about Mary Smith?” Instead, you will be treated to a bright, toothy smile and an intensely detailed ten-minute description of just where and when the author dreamed up those names.

It’s true; it’s written on the sand in words of flame. Oh, and congratulations for having made that author’s day.

There are, of course, many, many excellent sources of apt character names — for an amazingly rich source of inspiration and guidance on the subject, run, don’t walk to Askhari Johnson Hodari’s guest post on naming — but I am not going to talk about any of them today. (Which is requiring some restraint on my part, as I went all the way from nursery school through high school graduation with a classmate named Glee Burrow, a name I have been longing for decades to immortalize.) Nor, as all of you weary-eyed revisionists will no doubt be delighted to hear, am I going to repeat my caution about over-using character names in a text.

No, today, I shall be talking about naming your characters in such a way that your readers are likely to remember them — and be able to tell them apart in a book with a whole lot of characters. That may not sound especially difficult (how likely is even a reader slow on the uptake to confuse a fisherman named Paul and a jeweler named Ermintrude, right?), but in a manuscript where fifteen characters are introduced within the first two pages, the task can be a lulu.

Especially, as I mentioned last week, if too many of the names begin with the same letter, encouraging the eye to skip wildly between capitals. Take a gander:

Too many names example

Quite a large cast to reveal in the first moments of the first scene, isn’t it? Let’s face it, no matter how beautifully-drawn and exquisitely differentiated any subsequent character development for Jeremy, Jason, Jennifer, and Jemima might be, a skimming reader — like, say, Millicent (whose name means, appropriately enough, strong in work) — is likely to get ‘em confused on page 1.

I’m sensing some resistance from those of you writing about irresistible triplets named John, Jeffrey, and Jacobim. “But those are my characters’ names,” you protest, and who could blame you? “The names are integral to the characters! I can’t change them now! Besides, the example above wouldn’t really confuse any reader who was paying attention.”

Oh, you can complain all you like that since the narrative explained quite clearly who Bertrand, Benjamin, and Bertha were, as well as the interrelationships between Armand, Aspasia, Antoinette, Annabelle, and Angelica, not to mention the monarchy’s likely effect on the character whom we are left to guess is probably the protagonist, but if you pepper your page 1 with so many names that a reasonably intelligent reader might legitimately become confused, those clear explanations might not matter enough to encourage her to keep reading.

Especially if the her in question is a Millicent who has fifty submissions to read before lunchtime. Remember, agency screeners read fast; if they aren’t sure what’s going on and who the book is about by the middle of page 1, they generally stop reading a submission. As in forever.

What can a humble writer do to avoid walking into that dreadful fate? Actually, you already know: as I mentioned earlier in the Frankenstein manuscript series, a skimming reader is extremely likely to confuse characters with names that look or sound alike, so it’s best to give them monikers that not even the fastest reader could mistake for one another. Now we can build upon that excellent rule of thumb with what we learned from the example above: readers are also prone to confuse identities if a narrative introduces too many characters too quickly — or without making it pellucidly clear which in an opening crowd scene are the ones he reader will be expected to remember.

That last bit is equally true for fiction or nonfiction, so don’t doze off, memoirists and historians: it’s as important for your manuscript as for a novel for Millicent to know who and what your book is about before she loses interest. If the Mormon Tabernacle Choir rushes into view on page 1, the reader is going to have no idea which of those 360 singers is the protagonist unless the narrative spotlights him, so to speak.

Make sure she doesn’t need a program to tell who is who in your opening pages. Yes, even if that means banishing the entire alto and tenor sections to a scene later in the book.

Ditto with a synopsis: if it’s not clear who the protagonist is, consider ousting some of the character names. And please, whatever you do, don’t blow off this advice if your opening page or synopsis introduces only a handful of characters; what may seem like a reasonably intimate crowd to you, who have read the page 475 times, may well seem like a mob to a skimmer who is reading page 1 for the first time.

Allow me to add hastily, before any rules-lawyer out there begins demanding a maximum number of names that can appear on page 1: no such standard exists. Clarity is the goal here, and good storytelling. A lot depends upon what else is going on in the scene.

You don’t want Millicent to be so busy concentrating on names that she misses the absolutely crucial yet subtly-phrased aside from your protagonist on line 16, do you?

The same holds true for a synopsis, by the way. If your plot is crammed with action, you might want to limit how many character and place names you toss at Millicent per paragraph, so she can zero in on the essential conflicts.

To show you just how hard it is to keep characters straight in an action-packed storyline, let me trot out another of my all-time favorite examples: the plot of the opera La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina by Francesca Caccini, first performed in 1625. On the remote chance that some of the details of the plot may have slipped your minds, here’s a quick synopsis of just a few of the twists and turns that might leave an audience member drop-jawed:

The brave knight Ruggiero, ensnared by the love spells of the evil sorceress Alcina (who had a nasty habit of turning her exes into trees; opera gives one a lot of room for imaginative touches), has deserted both his fighting obligations and his warrior girlfriend, Bradamante. So another sorceress, Melissa, turns herself into an image of Ruggiero’s father, Atlante, to try to free him. Dressed as Atlante (and turning from an alto into a baritone for the occasion, a nifty trick), Melissa berates Ruggiero for lying around in sensual bliss when there’s work to be done.

A single three-minute solo later, Ruggiero’s mind is changed, with no argument from the big guy himself: he is free from the spell, and goes on to bellow some extraordinarily nasty insults at Alcina while Punchinello dances around with a squid.

As is my wont, I’m going to pause at this point to vent a bit: this type of persuasion in an interview scene — where the protagonist’s mind is changed on an issue about which he is supposedly passionate simply because someone tells him he’s wrong — occurs in novel submissions more often than you might think. Many a protagonist who is downright tigerish in defense of his ideals elsewhere in the book is positively lamblike when confronted by a boss, a lover, a child, etc. who points out his flaws.

As protagonist, he has an entire book (or opera, as the case may be) to play with — couldn’t he argue back just a little? Usually, the result is a more interesting scene. Why? Long-time readers of this blog, take out your hymnals and sing out together now: because conflict is almost invariably more interesting in a scene than agreement.

Okay, I’ve cleared that out of my system for now. But if you are worried about the efficacy of your manuscript’s interview scenes, I would strongly advise taking a gander at the posts under the INTERVIEW SCENES THAT WORK category on the archive list located at the bottom right-hand side of this page.

I think I’ve distracted you enough. Time for a pop quiz: quick, without re-scanning the paragraphs where I glossed over the opera’s plot, try to name as many of its characters as you can.

How did you do? I originally mentioned six, but don’t be hard on yourself if you only came up with one or two. Most readers would have experienced some difficulty keeping all of those sketchily-defined characters straight.

Heck, seeing them introduced en masse like that, I would have trouble remembering who was who, and I’ve seen the opera!

Introducing too many characters too fast for any of them to make a strong impression upon the reader is extremely common in the opening few pages of novel submissions. No wonder, then, that in manuscripts where there are so many people lurching around that it reads like a zombie convention in downtown Manhattan, Millicent cannot tell for several paragraphs, or even several pages, which one is the protagonist.

As with so many of the manuscript traits that we’ve seen raise red flags, part of the reason Millicent tends to be touchy about openings with casts of thousands is that she sees so darned many of them. I think TV and movies are to blame for how common first-page crowd scenes have become in recent years: filmic storytelling techniques are primarily visual, so many writers want to provide a snapshot-like view of the opening of the book.

Many, many, many writers. More than enough to cast the necessary extras for a zombie scene in downtown Manhattan hundreds of thousands of times over.

In case I’m being too subtle here: it’s in your strategic interest to limit the number of characters introduced within the first couple of pages of your submission. And no, as much as any literal-minded reader out there might prefer that I provide a chart specifying how many is too many, broken down by genre, length of work, and mood of Millicent, every writer is going to have to use her own best judgment to figure out how many zombies should be lurching altos should be singing characters should appear on page 1.

But you didn’t think I would leave all of you to make that determination without any guidelines did you? Here are a couple of tests I like to apply when in doubt about just how big the opening scene’s cast should be.

1. Does the text make the relative importance of the protagonist plain?
If you are not sure — and the author is often not the best person to answer this particular question — try applying a modification of the quiz I asked you to take above:

(a) Hand the first page of your book to a non-writer. (NOT a relative, lover, or someone with whom you interact on a daily basis, please; these folks’ desire to see you happy may well skew the results of the test.)

(b) Ask her to read through it as quickly as possible.

(c) As soon as she’s finished, ask her to put down the paper. Talk about something else for a couple of minutes.

(d) Have her tell you who the main character is and what the book is about. If she starts talking about characters other than your protagonist, you have too many; if she can’t tell you anything about the plot, consider opening with a different scene, one that more accurately represents the crux of the book.

Why did I specify a non-writer, you ask? Writers tend to be unusually good at absorbing character names; the average reader is not. And your garden-variety agency screener scans far too rapidly, and reads far too many submissions in a given day, to retain the name of any character who has not either been the subject of extensive description — which can be problematic in itself — or a mover or shaker in the plot.

Perhaps not even then. Our buddy Millicent has a lot on her mind — like that too-hot latte that just burned her full pink lip. (You’d think, after how long I have been writing about her, that she would have learned by now to let it cool, wouldn’t you? But that’s an agency screener for you: speed is of the essence.)

2. Does the text portray each named character as memorable?
Again, you may want to seek outside assistance for this one. This test is also useful to see how well your storytelling skills are coming across,

(a) Hand the entire first scene to that non-writer and ask her to read it as quickly as possible, to reproduce Millicent’s likely rate of scanning.

(b) Take away the pages and talk with her about something else entirely for ten minutes.

(c) In minute eleven, ask her to tell you the story of that first scene with as much specificity as possible. Note which names she can and cannot remember. If she’s like 99% of skimmers, she will probably remember only the two primary ones.

(d) After thanking her profusely, sit down with your list of passed-over names and the manuscript: do all of these folks really HAVE to make an appearance in the opening scene?

If the answer is no, you have a few fairly attractive options for getting rid of them. Could some of them be consolidated into a single character, for instance, to reduce the barrage of names the reader will have to remember?

Or could any of them be in the scene, but not mentioned specifically until later in the book, where the protagonist encounters that character again? (A simple statement along the lines of, “Hey, Clarence, weren’t you one of the thugs who beat me to a pulp last month?” is usually sufficient for later identification, I find.)

Or are these characters mentioned here for purely photographic reasons? In other words, is their being there integral to the action of the scene, or are the extraneous many named or described simply because they are in the area, and an outside observer glancing at the center of action would have seen them lurking?

In a screenplay, you would have to mention their presence, of course — but in a crowd scene in a novel, describing the mob as monolithic can have a greater impact. For instance, which sounds scarier to you, Mr. Big threatening Our Hero while surrounded by his henchmen, Mannie, Moe, and Ambrose — or surrounded by an undifferentiated wall of well-armed baddies?

Personally, I would rather take my chances with Ambrose and Co. than with the faceless line of thugs, wouldn’t you? My imagination can conjure a much scarier array of henchmen than the named three. (Mannie has a knife; I just know it!)

I know, I know: when you create a novel, you create the world in which your characters live, and that world is peopled. But in the interest of grabbing Millicent’s often mercurial attention, would a smaller cast of characters, at least at the outset, render your book more compelling?

You could also opt to introduce your characters gradually, rather than dumping them all upon the reader in a group scene. More gradual revelation will allow the reader to tell the players apart, thus rendering the ones you reveal early on more memorable. It is worth giving some thought to how much those first few players in your story stick in the mind, anyway, particularly if your opening is — wait for it — an interview scene.

Why? Well, since the primary point of an interview scene is to convey necessary information to the reader, and the main thrust of an interview scene that opens a book is almost invariably to introduce background and premise, character development tends to fall by the wayside. Or, if it doesn’t in the text, it often does in the reader’s mind.

Think about it: if the reader is being given a great deal of background in a chunk, interspersed with relatively minor details about the tellers of that history, which is the reader more likely to remember?

Yes, yes, I know: in a perfect world, it would be enough to mention these things once in manuscript, and readers would remember them forever — or at any rate, for the next few chapters. But in practice, particularly with the rapid once-over a professional reader is likely to give a manuscript, names often start to blur together.

Don’t believe me? Okay, who was with Jeremy, and what were the names of the princesses he was trying to save?

The ubiquitous advice to screenwriters not to feature more than one character whose name begins with the same sound is basically very good, you know — if your story has a Cindy, you’re better off not also depicting a Sydney, for instance, or a Cilla. I once edited an otherwise excellent book where 8 of the 11 children of the family being depicted all had names that ended in –een: Colleen, Maureen, Doreen, Marleen, Laurene, Arleen, and Coreen, if memory serves. I eventually had to draw extensive diagrams on scratch paper, just to keep track of who was allied with whom on any given page.

Doubtless, there are families where such naming patterns are normal, but it made it darned hard to remember whose storyline was whose.

Again, I know: character names are vital to the writer’s relationship with them. However, trust me on this one — no agent is going to care that Sydney is your favorite name in the world, if she keeps confusing him with your protagonist Cindy; no editor is going to want to listen to your protestations that Chelsea and Charity are not in enough scenes together to confuse anyone of normal intelligence.

Argue about names AFTER a publishing house buys your book. Opt for clarity at the submission stage.

And never, under any circumstances, christen your characters with names beginning with the same first letters as other proper nouns prominent in your text. When the same letter is used repeatedly, swift reading can become a tad confusing. Slide your eyes over this morsel:

Tanya had rented her in-line skates from Tucker last time she came to Taormina, but Tammy was so insistent that they frequent Trevor’s establishment on Trent Road this time that Tanya could not resist her blandishments. If only Tommy had joined them on this vacation, instead of fly to Toronto with Tina and the Tiny Tot Orchestra; he would have known how to handle Tammy.

See how perplexing all of those Ts are to the eye? (Not to mention extraordinarily difficult to read out loud; you may not be giving public readings at this point in your career, but you should be thinking ahead.) If the facts here were important to the plot, the reader would have to go back and re-read this passage, something that agency screeners are notoriously reluctant to do.

Why? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: time, time, time.

As I MAY have mentioned above (and, not to put too fine a point on it, have been mentioning periodically in this forum for the past five years), the denizens of agencies and publishing houses read much, much faster than your friendly neighborhood bookstore browser. Not out of any hatred of the written word, but out of sheer self-defense.

In a way, it’s perfectly understandable: tell me, if you had a hundred 50-page submissions on your desk, were anticipating another hundred within the next couple of days, AND had other work to do (including opening those 800+ queries that came this week), how much time would YOU devote to each?

It’s just a fact: no matter how good your writing is, agencies are generally awash in queries and up to their ears in still-to-be-read submissions. As one of those submitters, you really do not have very long to wow ‘em. Rather than letting this prospect make you fear that your work is going to get lost in the crowd, let it be empowering: the vast majority of the time, it’s the small errors early on, not the big ones in the middle, that get submissions rejected.

That’s a hard pill to swallow, I know. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: many, if not most, aspiring writers have an unrealistic idea of what happens to those packets of requested materials they send. Naturally, we would all like for our work to be read promptly, carefully, and in its entirety by a thoughtful, intelligent professional reader well versed in the conventions of our particular genres.

And that does happen — occasionally. But significantly more often, packets sit around in agents’ and editors’ offices for weeks on end, and/or are read hurriedly, and/or are discarded after only a few pages. Frequently after only one, or even after only a few paragraphs.

Why should you find that encouraging? Because you can fix the little problems in your opening pages with relative ease, and let your good ideas and fine writing shine through.

So if I’ve seem to be harping upon small matters here lately, believe me, it’s not just to make your life harder by suggesting new and different ways for you to revise your manuscript. I’m just trying to help you minimize the technical problems — and thus maximize the probability that your fine writing will have a chance to speak for itself.

More thoughts on character names follow — along, no doubt, with more tirades about those pesky interview scenes. Diversify your character names, everyone, and keep up the good work!

P.S.: Don’t borrow Glee’s name, please, at least not in its entirety; I have big plans for it.