Okay, I admit it. I put sexy in the title because “The Synopsis” sounded about as exciting as the lame jazz rendition of Marvin Gaye with which I am being aurally punished in Starbucks right now. And then I thought, it really is important to make your synopsis truly sexy, so I am not a total pimp. No matter where you are in your writing career, you have to be able to let people know what your book is about. There will be situations that require small, medium, and large descriptions.
At my first RWA convention, one of my favorite workshops was the Elevator Pitch by Carrie Lofty. 90,000 words down to 30? Thirty words. The entire story—all those lush details and compelling plot points and sexual tension—boiled down to thirty words. By learning how to do that, I learned how to answer the dreaded question that crops up at most cocktail parties and family gatherings: “So, what’s your book about?” You must be able to answer that in one breath…which turns out to be about thirty words. I’ve got it down to eight now (Clever American Woman Unwittingly Falls for British Duke). If I am talking to someone who appreciates colorful language I replace “clever” with “smart-ass.” I used “sassy” a couple of times, but it’s too Peppermint Patty and doesn’t really convey the maturity and self-possession of my heroine. I used “unwittingly” because he fails to mention he’s heir to a dukedom when he meets her in a secondhand bookstore in Wicker Park. (See! Just like that I want to go off on a thousand tangents, and really all anyone wants to know is, “What’s your book about?”) If someone wants to know more, well, then you have them in your clutches and you can go on from there. (Why, Yes! It’s a contemporary! With glamourous locations…castles! black tie balls! Why, Yes! He is dashing and smoldering and a bit of all right, and she is gangly and sexy in a knock-kneed way!) You get the picture. Keep it simple.
This is the 100-250 word synopsis, also known as the Query or Pitch Letter synopsis. A lot of agents and publishers ask for a one-page pitch…roughly 250 words. Okay, here you can get into some of your favorite parts. The really good bits. You can also get your voice in there. Make it sing. (No pressure.) Again, great workshops on this at RWA. There was one agent workshop where the moderator read actual query letters aloud and if you looked at the four agents on the panel you could see precisely when they lost interest (or when their interest was piqued). As writers, we get (necessarily) caught up in our own stories, frequently ploughing on in our descriptions without really looking up at our listeners to see if they are even paying attention. If you are pitching, you need to pay attention. While I was querying agents, I read all of my query letters aloud to my (at-the-time) ten-year-old daughter. I figured if I could hold her attention, I could hold anyone’s.
[Bittersweet Memory Aside: When I got my first request for a full manuscript, my dad asked what I had sent to garner their interest. I read my query letter to him and when I was done, he said, “Someone really read that whole thing?” It was one page, people.]
I was lucky and went straight from query letter to a request for a full manuscript, so I never got into the long-form synopsis. I thought I was in the clear. Then, in December, I got a request from Sourcebooks for a 2,000-word synopsis. What?! What is that? Apparently lots of people need to know what the book is about without actually reading it. Marketing People. Art People. Booksellers. People who are going to be instrumental in the sales and distribution of my book. So. Fuck. Two thousand words is a lot. Did I include a bit of dialogue? (No.) Physical descriptions? (Yes! Cover Art, remember?) Cliffhangers? (No! They need to know the whole story, remember?) Thankfully, Pam Rosenthal’s husband, Michael, wrote a fantastic essay here:
Everything he says is exactly right. (It’s more important that you read that essay than this one.) So, it took a while, but again, totally worth it. I mean, let’s face it, I had to do it whether it was educational or not, but it was nice to know it was enlightening to boot. I have a renewed big-picture grasp of my story that I was beginning to lose touch with after rounds of editing and re-writes. I sent a draft to my agent and she said it looked great except what about this and what about that. I had completely overlooked two major plot points and had about two hundred words of dead wood. I made those changes and sent it to the Managing Editor this week. She said it was just the thing. (Actually, she said, “Excellent,” but it would sound self-aggrandizing for me to say that here.) Now, if someone asks for more than 2,000 words? At this point, I will probably tell them to just read the damn book.