January 21, 2009

Personal essay: Reining It In -- Summaries and synopses

This autumn, I was invited by the publishing company HarperCollins UK to be an occasional guest contributor to the official blog for their online experiment authonomy, which Americans can think of as a "Project Greenlight" for books -- writers are encouraged to upload their unsigned novels, at which point they are read and rated by other unsigned writers, with the top-ranking books each month getting "kicked upstairs" to actual HarperCollins editors. Even better, they've graciously given me permission to reprint the essays here at the CCLaP site a few days later. Below is the latest; and you can find all the rest if you want at the main personal essay master list here at the site.

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Reining It In: Summaries and synopses

As I'm sure almost everyone at authonomy is already aware, writing a novel is only half the battle of actually publishing a novel; after the sweat and toil of the creative process itself comes the equally frustrating task of selling it, not just to an agent and then an editor but eventually the public at large. And as part of this process, you can guarantee that various short versions of your story will be requested by these people in various situations, from a full outline for an overstressed editor to a punchy blurb for the book cover itself. So what exactly should go into each of these types of summaries, and how many different types of synopses should a writer have finished and ready to send people? Well, as always, I'm happy to share my opinions on the subject, although as always remind people that mine is not the only legitimate way to look at it, nor will my advice necessarily work in every single publishing situation. In general, though, I think an author could do a lot worse than to have the following kinds of summaries at their disposal, once their book is finished and is being shopped around...

First, let's address what seems to be the industry standard, the half-page general summary, the one designed specifically to fit neatly within a one-page query letter. And in fact, since this type of summary is used almost exclusively to cold-sell a book idea to an industry professional, it's safe to say that there's one rule regarding this type of summary that is more important than any of the others -- that the entire point is not to actually explain the storyline itself, but merely to get someone interested in knowing more. This is in fact the number-one problem among writers regarding query letters, I find, is the compulsion to overwrite them and thus make them less and less effective; because let's not forget, the agent or editor reading that query reads hundreds upon hundreds of them a year, dozens upon dozens of full books as well, and has probably been doing so now for decades, and so is already intimately familiar with every plotline that's ever existed and every twist to that plotline that's ever been attempted. With these people, the goal is never to tell them the details of your book they can already guess; it's to highlight the few elements that might be legitimately different than all those other unsigned manuscripts out there, the things that are legitimately unique and therefore in theory give your book more commercial potential.

Of course, in a happy world, some of these people will indeed become interested in your manuscript, at which point most will request a full detailed outline of the entire thing. Remember, this is not the time to get stingy with plot-revealing details! I hear this all the time from writers, in fact, regarding both this and the query letter mentioned before, this fear that they're somehow "spoiling the story" by revealing too many details from the end of the book. But remember, that's the entire point; that since most industry professionals simply don't have the time to sit and read entire manuscripts they've taken a passing interest in, they will rely instead on a combination of detailed outline and the first twenty pages of the actual book, to determine quickly whether you can write decently and whether your storyline eventually goes anywhere by the end. It's only after both of these things are established that most agents and editors will finally request the entire manuscript; and that's why I recommend having ready a detailed outline with at least a little heft to it, somewhere between two and maybe five or six pages in length, going over the entire storyline and all its developments from beginning to end.

And then of course is something I've gone over here before, the "blurb" or "elevator pitch" or whatever you want to call it, the ten-second summary that can be blurted out during an elevator ride to any stranger who expresses an interest (hence the term's name); but like I said, I've covered this topic in a previous post here, so would encourage you to read that to learn more. And then finally is the type of synopsis many of us are most familiar with, the action-packed and hyperbole-laced dust-jacket summary ("An unforgettable story! The assured announcement of an exciting new literary voice!"), designed solely to get a potential customer excited enough while at the bookstore or Amazon skimming the thing to actually purchase it; and let's face it, that this is the one option a writer can most easily skip, in that any publisher who might end up signing the book will eventually just rewrite this copy anyway, using the marketing people on their staff who are much better at that stuff than you'll ever be. But still, I don't think this is necessarily such a bad last step for a writer to take, for personal reasons more than anything else; after all that work and effort to actually write the book and get it ready to sell, usually for almost no external rewards whatsoever, it can be gratifying to see it finally described in the same breathless tone as any other published book out there. Remember, that's part of the process too, is to have patience and discipline, an eternal amount of optimism and self-belief; the more such little things like this an author can do, to keep their spirits up about their book long after they've finally finished actually writing it, the better off that author will be.

As mentioned, these are certainly not the only options at a writer's disposal, nor are all these options nearly required in every situation; in general terms, though, I think an author will be well-equipped for most situations they encounter by having these four types of summaries eventually down cold, regarding each and every manuscript they end up shopping around. And don't forget, such a thing serves an active purpose in a writer's ongoing career too; this process can reveal things about a manuscript the author didn't even realize was there, can show strengths to that writer's style they didn't realize they had. Any author worth their salt should be constantly interested in bettering themselves as an artist; the summary process helps not only from a commercial standpoint for each project, but from this more aesthetic career-long one as well.

As always, I encourage you to leave your own thoughts about all this in the comments below; and if you have a specific topic you'd like to see addressed here in the future, by all means feel free to drop me a line directly at [ilikejason at gmail.com]. Happy reading!

Filed by Jason Pettus at 3:05 PM, January 21, 2009. Filed under: Literature |