Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Art of the Query and Other Bits of the Biz

The S-Word

Since I’ve crafted a writing blog, I will sporadically post on guru tips I’ve picked up from conferences, networks, or other blogs and websites. And today, I shall spout from my filthy writer’s mouth on a should-be taboo word.

As a teacher, a mom, and a Christian, I try to keep my potty mouth at bay. My kids grow up thinking “stupid” is a bad word. When I say “neato nifty” or “gosh golly gee”, my students look at me like I just stepped out a screening of Pleasantville. In fact, my inability to sully my books with anything more than “freaking” and “crap” will probably be one of my downfalls in trying to get my novels published.

But there are certain things that make me want to cuss like a sailor. And while writing has become a fire that fuels my existence, I definitely have a few choice words that I’d prefer to not use in daily speech. The R-word (uh, rejection) and today’s topic—the S-word.

In the past five weeks, I’ve boiled a two-page synopsis down to one and now am repeating such a heinous act with another. And in trying to encapsulate my 74,000 word in one page, I seriously think I’ve invented a new math I’m calling suck-i-ometry. Maybe bored-ebra. Ugh.

Here’s why s-word writing carries such a fabulous weight with me: everyone varies on what they want. Some want a two-pager. Some allow five. I’m so lucky as to be reducing my was two, currently one and a half, into one page.

So in procrastinating synopsis-hacking just one more day, I re-scoped some of my fav gurus on their synop opinions and here’s what I’ve come up with:

Most of the experts concur that…

1) A synopsis covers the most important points—events that move the story forward in a major way. Strive for bare-bones. It’s a narrative summary of your book—with feeling. Some say in the same style of your book.

2) It’s written in the present tense

3) It’s written in the third person

4) When you introduce major (and only major, not bit) characters, put them in all-caps the first time (and don’t refer to them as anything else)

5) Include a conclusion aka how the story ends.

What varies…

1) Length (see above rant)

2) Spacing—single or double. Most books will conclude on double—easier to read. Makes sense, right? But I’ve also been told and read your lovely synopsis can be single-spaced

One of my fav blogs to visit is the Guide to Literary Agents Blog and creator Chuck Sambuchino recommends having two versions (or in my case three) of your synopsis—one short, one long. He also provides a lot of excellent step-by-step instructions on formatting and reiterates above advice about what to include.

Fiction Writer’s Connection details what a synopsis is and even provides a synopsis check-list.

Need a more detailed sketch as to what each paragraph in a synopsis should include? Check out Five Steps to a Synopsis

And if synopsis is your arch nemesis, Sheila Kelly’s Writing the Novel Synopsis Workshop arms you with secret weapons such as “Create catch-phrases and buzz words – present ideas in short form as much as possible. Example: ‘She was raised by nuns until she came of age to inherit her family fortune’ can be converted into ‘convent-schooled heiress.’”

Some other cool sites for synopsis writing: Patricia Dodd offers a very detailed look at synopses.

Crime writer Beth Anderson gives advice on writing a tight synopsis.

Nathan Bransford simply reinforces above-I just like his blog.

And some of the best advice I ever received on writing synopses came at the hands (or words) of agent Joanna Stampfel Volpe of Nancy Coffey Literary. At a conference I attended she actually took us through writing a synopsis of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. She analogized synopsis creating to writing a book report (well, yeah) and that the most common mistakes she encounters is that they are too long and include waaaay too much info. Just the pertinent facts, ma’am. A skeleton.

Of course, I cringed when she knocked the Dursleys and Quidditch out of our way too long list of what we as a group deemed important. Is it really important to know that Harry plays Quidditch? (YES!!!—uh, that was me) Does it carry the story forward? Okay, well… alright… cut. Whatever.

She said they are more a tool for the agent and editor.

A tool, huh?

According to Marg Gilks on Writing World, “editors and agents like having this distillation; not only will it pique their interest, but it's something they can use when presenting the novel to the buying board. It's also something you can use, the next time someone politely asks you, ‘What's your novel about?’"

And as I postponed honing my own synopsis-chopping just one more hour, I’ve arrived at some surefire conclusions.

1) Synopsis writing is a necessity for creating a vital marketing tool (and a must-have for many submission purposes)

2) It helps me hone my own writing skills

3) It’s a tool for me too

4) And… it’s really not so, so bad.

Okay—I’m done now. And I just did a word count on my S-word. I may be washing my mouth out with soap for days.


  1. Been there, done that--just recently actually. I spent hours upon hours upon hours chopping my five page synopsis down to two. It was torture, BUT I think I actually like the short version best. I can't imagine having to take it down to one. Yikes!

  2. Great post, Alison!

    Please accept this blog award from me!


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