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ASK THE EDITOR Dealing With The Dreaded

By Susan Malone

August, 2000



What most writers hate about our business, almost universally, is the marketing of their work. Drafting documents with which to market–outlines, proposals, synopses, etc.–can turn into a beast of epic proportions as writers strive for that elusive balance between creativity and business. Synopses take the brunt of the abuse, with as many theories running around about them as flavors of Blue Bell in summertime. The result, almost always, is a hodgepodge of frantically trying to squeeze in too many details, coyness with important points, and terrible writing.

In other words, we take a simple document and turn it into a monster.

Most of the time, I cannot relate the writer of a synopsis to the one who wrote the book. The styles are so different, the same person surely didn't pen them. But lo! He or she actually did. Many of the editors and agents I know don't even read a synopsis, or, they read it after perusing the manuscript. The reason? They're so put off by that sales tool that they would reject the book out of hand.

As Deirdre Knight of The Knight Agency (Literary Representation) said, "I don't personally put much emphasis on them, either in what I send to editors, nor in what I expect."

So, what's going on here, and what adjustment can be made so that the synopsis actually HELPS one's marketing efforts, rather than hurts them?

First off, we have all of these articles, classes, etc., on how to write the perfect synopsis. Of course, rarely do they agree upon which points to focus, or how to get the gist of the story told. Many espouse the idea of "dazzling" an editor or agent with the query or synopsis. Hooey. Editors and agents don't want to be dazzled by your marketing tool. They want to know what your book's about, and if it's right for them. So, let go of the notion of making a living off of queries or synopses. Concentrate instead on getting across the point of your book, and wait and dazzle them with the entity itself, rather than the words ABOUT the entity.

In other words, chill a little.

Next, we get too bent out of shape about the length and scope of the document. Each agent will want to see a little something different, and every one will tell you what that is.

"I will say that I prefer a shorter one," Knight said, "because I don't care to see an overview of every plot nuance. There are folks, though, who insist on 10-12 page synopses. So, I think the thing really is–various agents and editors have different personal preferences. But no editor has ever said to me, 'Gee, I needed a longer synopsis.' Or that one wasn't what they wanted. An editor HAS said to me, though, that she just jumps right into the story, and only looks at the synopsis later. I can say that of myself. If a story grabs me, then I'll take a look at the synopsis to see where it's going and how it will unfold."

However, Knight did add, "I think it's very difficult to synopsize a full-length novel in just two pages, but that three pages seems to give adequate enough room."

Okay, so we're going to leave off the sound bites, and instead make sure we're sending what the agent asks for. And the third mistake I see all the time? Being coy. Yes, you want to tease the person with the synopsis, but a big difference exists between teasing and being coy. To tease is to give a flavor for the story, without explaining how everything works out. However, it does NOT mean to keep the important points hidden.

"One thing writers should always take note of," Knight concluded, "is don't leave the reader in suspense as to their story's conclusion with the synopsis. I see this a lot, and it's irritating to me when I turn to the synopsis to see how a story will end, only to read something like, 'And the hero discovers the killer is the last person he would have expected!' Gee, now that doesn't tell the agent or editor what they need to know."

In other words, remember that the agent or editor is going to be on your side in trying to market the book. That person needs to know where the book is going, and roughly how it gets there. Period.

The rest of the rules (flexible ones) that help to make it a readable document just center on good writing. You know, make it active. Create it rather than tell it (avoid the 'He did x,' 'She did y,' type of construction). Check out the inside blurb on book-jacket covers to catch the idea of the flavor.

And then convey your book via a few pages, just as you would explain it to your friend over a cocktail or coke.

Most importantly, relax. Once you quit giving so much power to the monster, it shrinks into a malleable helper.

Susan M. Malone is a Contributing Editor to Authorlink.com, a multi-published author, and owner of a successful editorial service. SEVEN books she’s edited have been published or sold within the last two years. Her own newest nonfiction, FIVE KEYS FOR UNDERSTANDING MEN, co-authored with Gary L. Malone, MD, is out now. Check out her listing under Editorial Services, and email her at aaasuz@aol.com