Writing, as a professional activity, is a funny thing. Your ‘competitors’ aren’t really that; they’re more like collaborators. It’s not like other jobs, where there’s one position and twenty applicants – when you send in your work to an agent or a publisher, you’re only in competition with yourself, really. Your work is – or should be – judged on its own merit, and not in comparison with the strengths of another writer’s work; if your writing is a good fit for a particular agency, or the market, chances are you’ll attract interest. This is not to say that there are endless reams of opportunity in writing – it’s not like there’s a tree that grows publishing contracts, after all – but whatever is there, it’s there for everyone, and everyone has a fair crack at success.
At least this is what I choose to believe. Perhaps I’m being unrealistic, but this has been my experience so far.
The flipside to all this, of course, is that there are a lot of collaborators out there. So many people write, or want to. So many people are talented. So many people are trying, so hard, with everything they have. The market will only bear so many of us before there’s a glut, and nobody wants that. So, how do you get your work to stand out? How do you give yourself the best edge?
Well. When you make a submission, anywhere, the only thing an agent or publisher has to go on is the strength of your synopsis, your cover letter, and/or your pitch – some submissions will require a pitch, and some won’t. Over the past year or so, I’ve learned a thing or two about writing submissions, and how to handle their main elements. In total awareness of the fact that I haven’t actually managed to secure an agent’s approval yet (though it’s only a matter of time, darnit!), I thought I might share some of my hard-earned knowledge.
(Disclaimer: the following is based entirely on my own experience, so it may not suit everyone. There’s plenty of advice out there if you’re preparing a submission; this is designed to complement, not replace, other guidelines.)
Firstly – writing a synopsis is no picnic
Writing a synopsis is hard, and it takes work. I have to get that out there, straight away. They need almost as many drafts as the book itself does, and it’s not worth cutting corners.
You’d think it would be easy to write a synopsis of your own book, but it’s really not. The closer you are to a piece of writing, the harder it is for you to boil it down to its essentials and actually express what it’s about. You, as the author, are aware of a much bigger picture than is a person who comes to your work cold; it’s hard to let some of the tasty little details that (let’s face it) only matter to you go unmentioned. It’s important, of course, to give a true and accurate reflection of the book – including how it ends, as an agent will need to know whether you’ve created a fully-realised story by the time they’ve finished reading your synopsis – but you do need to keep it brief and clear. It helps to make chapter-by-chapter (or page-by-page) summaries of your book, and use these when structuring your synopsis. I usually limit my summary to the size of a single Post-It note, which I then stick on the edge of the page. Hey presto – a handy reference guide! If you’ve summarised your work, you can see things like themes, character arcs, and all the important bits at a glance.
Essentially, your synopsis needs to mention all the main players, their roles in the unfolding of the plot, and where the characters interact or clash. It needs to show the progression of the story, the essential conflicts within it and how they are resolved, and the development of your main characters. It should be interesting, and engaging, and it should make your book sound like the kind of thing that’s worth spending money to read.
There is a school of thought which says you should write your synopsis in a similar style to that of the book you’re submitting. So, if you’ve written an uproariously funny story, your synopsis should be humorous or, at the least, light-hearted, in order to give a flavour of what’s to come. I think there’s a lot to be said for that approach. Just – you know. Use common sense. Don’t use foul language. Make sure everything is work-appropriate. Remember you are not a professional comedian.
In general, a synopsis needs to be:
– Written in focused, succint paragraphs, in a clear font such as Times New Roman, 12-point, and usually double or 1.5 spaced – but always check with the agency to which you’re submitting for their specific requirements;
– Printed in black ink on white paper (if printed);
– As short as possible (again, check if the agency/publisher has guidelines, but about 500 words should do);
– A step-by-step walkthrough of the plot, including how it all unfolds, your main characters and their motivations/conflicts with other characters, all the while remembering that not every tiny detail needs to be mentioned;
– Completely free of rhetorical questions (what if I told you how irritating they are?) and ellipses…;
– Utterly scrupulous in its grammar, punctuation, spelling and presentation – no agent wants to read a synopsis that makes them wince;
– Inclusive of a total word-count for your completed book, and its genre (though sometimes it’s best to put this in your cover letter. The agency’s guidelines may state which they prefer, so check.)
– Describing your work as ‘genius’ (even if it is);
– Describing your work as ‘Fifty Shades meets Gone Girl meets Bring Up the Bodies‘, just in order to name-drop. Some guidelines say that agents like you to site your work in relation to other writers’, but if you want to do this I’d say your cover letter is a better place to mention it. Oh, and keep it simple, and err on the side of humble;
– Blathering on about how your book could easily be made into a movie or a TV show or a theme-park or including sketches of your vision for the ‘merch’ which should be put into production immediately so as to be on sale by the time the book is published;
– Telling the agent how to do their job, and that they’d be ‘crazy’ not to pick you up.
Remember: paragraphs, clarity, professionalism. This is, essentially, a job application.
Secondly – a ‘synopsis’ and a ‘pitch’ are not the same thing
A synopsis needs to be a document that an agent can read and know, when they’ve finished reading it, what sort of book you’ve written, how it wraps up, whether the plot holds together and whether it’s the sort of thing they’d be interested in. If you’ve made wise choices regarding the agents you’re submitting to, and you’ve written a decent synopsis, hopefully the answer to the last aspect will be a resounding ‘yes.’
A pitch, however, is different.
A pitch is short, tight, and ‘hooky’ – by which I mean, you don’t need to explain everything that happens in the book. They’re a bit like the blurb you get on the back of a published book, which explains everything and nothing, and is designed to intrigue you into parting with your cash to find out how it all ends. If you read a few of those, you’ll get a good idea how to write a pitch. Basically, make it snappy, short, and mention as many of the cool details in your book as you can without giving too much away. Some people talk about the ‘elevator pitch’ – as in, imagine you’re stepping into an elevator with your dream agent, and you have ninety seconds, or until she reaches her floor, to convince her to sign you – so, basically, you need to sell her your book in no time flat by making it sound unmissable.
So, yeah. You can see how things can get complicated, fast.
Getting some feedback on your synopses/pitches is a good idea; practice is another. Take movies or books and write synopses/pitches for them as though you were the author, and then see if your friends and/or significant other can figure out which book or movie it is. Get other people to tell you where your writing is punchy, and where it sags. It’s a vital thing to get good at, because one thing’s for sure: if you’re planning a career as a writer, creating pitches and synopses are going to be a big part of your future.
I’ll look a little more at this topic, including cover letters, in another blog post. In the meantime, I hope this has been useful. Write on!