I usually don’t procrastinate, unless it’s on a personal project with no hard deadline. Then I become a pro. Like querying literary agents. Yes, I finally did it (two rounds this year, actually), but I could have started a month earlier. I figured no one could reject me if I didn’t submit any queries. Once I made peace with the idea that my inbox would soon be filled with little pink slips, however, I got to work.
I didn’t submit willy-nilly, though. The agent has to be pretty enthusiastic about young adult lit (lukewarm doesn’t cut it), but even some agents that represent young adult aren’t interested in sci-fi or fantasy. After I went through my new copy of Writer’s Market, highlighting or crossing out, I went back and narrowed my list (checking every one on Preditors & Editors first – read why here). For the first round of submissions, I didn’t want to do a lot of work. Well, that’s not quite it. Writing a query is a lot of work, which is what last week’s post was all about. In one page, you have to introduce yourself, tell about your pertinent publishing history (if any), explain why you like the agent, and then say enough about your book to make an agent interested enough to ask for the rest of it. And just in case there’s some literary agent grapevine where they compare notes and giggle about the stupid mistakes authors make, I tried to make each query slightly different. I skipped over agencies that requested exclusive submissions. Those will go last because the response times can sometimes take months. I also skipped those who requested mailed submissions because, well, I was being lazy. And I temporarily ignored those pesky agencies that can’t live with a query and sample chapters, the ones who actually want a synopsis of the whole novel.
When it comes to writing, I’ll take a novel over a synopsis any day. There is little harder for me to do than cram a summary of my tens-of-thousands-of-words story into a tiny space – oh and by the way, make it catchy, too.
I knew I would have to do it eventually. As much as writing a synopsis is like pulling teeth, I didn’t want to take the chance of submitting to those agencies without one and offending them, nor did I want to avoid them altogether (and a potential, although not likely, sale). Besides, during the almost-two-year period when I contracted with a scammer agent, my first assignment was to write a synopsis, anyway. The scammer forwarded five articles with tips about synopsis writing. Even if the articles wouldn’t write the synopsis for me, I figured they would give me a clear direction. Ha.
The direction turned out to raise more questions than answers. Of the five articles, there were at least three different ideas about how to format a synopsis and the proper length. One stated that some people go by the rule of one page of synopsis for every twenty-five pages of manuscript –but went on to say that that’s probably too much for most agents and editors. (Questioning my agent didn’t help; she was absolutely clueless – didn’t the articles give me enough conclusive info? I should have started running, then.)
I did the best I could, and only after my synopsis was critiqued did I find out that my agent needed it to be under two hundred words. Um, that’s quite a departure from one page of synopsis per twenty-five pages of manuscript (especially considering my manuscript was over three hundred at the time).
When I read someone else’s manuscript, there are certain things that I expect, that I believe most editors and agents expect, too. There are the general things that matter, such as double-spacing, using a legible 12-pt font (like Times New Roman or Courier), one-inch margins on all four sides, name and contact information somewhere in the header, and a heading with name and title on any pages after the first. Page numbers are a must, and I prefer a word count, although I’ll let it slide if it’s included in the cover letter. Although not following these universally expected guidelines isn’t enough to make me reject a story outright, seeing crazy fonts in a lot of different colors, for instance, will make me less friendly toward the manuscript I’m about to read.
So when it comes to synopses, is the same true? To me, it doesn’t really matter if the title is in all caps or if a character’s name is capitalized the first time it’s mentioned – especially considering these were two points that seemed very important in some of the “helpful” articles I read and not worth mentioning in others. In my opinion, if an agent has such specific expectations, they should be spelled out in the submission guidelines. Or I could just play it safe and write my synopsis half a dozen ways and submit them all, just to cover every possible formatting opinion. I couldn’t possibly be rejected for doing that, could I? Well, yes, I could, and I have rejected people for writing like insecure idiots. Two things drive me nuts: the person who should write “there” but uses “their” and “they’re,” too, because he can’t figure out which is right and the person who doesn’t trust that the words are getting the message across and resorts to excessive italics, underline, bold, and two or more paragraph styles to make it look interesting. At that point, I know I’m dealing with someone who doesn’t care enough about the craft to learn how to write properly.
So here I am, wondering if my synopsis (which looks okay to me) shows me as an author who is not ready for print. Unfortunately, rejection slips are never so specific. I’m sorry, Ms. Cotchaleovitch, your synopsis was so poorly written that I could not stomach the rest of your submission. But there is some consensus out there. A synopsis does need to be short. Sorry, wordsmiths. I am one of the wordiest people out there, so it’s hard for me to swallow that one, too. But you don’t want your synopsis dumped in the slush pile because it looks like a short story (or worse, a novella). More important than the length, however, is that it has a catchy opening (the hook), and that it is clear and concise. Trim all the fat – extraneous adjectives, adverbs, and interjections such as this one – from your synopsis, and when you think it’s lean enough, go back and trim some more. It’s not necessary to name every character and outline every subplot. What gets the protagonist from Point A (the beginning) to Point B (the end)? If it doesn’t follow that path, save it for the story (and make doubly sure it really belongs there, too). Then have someone read it. Joe Reader is fine. It helps to get honest feedback from someone who knows nothing about the story. It might hurt, but it’s better to hear the bad news from a friend and fix it before you send it out.
I dug up my old synopsis, but since leaving the scammer agent two-and-a-half years ago, my novel has undergone two revisions, and it was almost useless to me. Actually, what helped me most was going back to my query, reading my brief description, and elaborating from there. Then I cut and cut and cut some more until I got it a little shorter than two pages. Then into cyberspace and the mail my queries and synopses went. Now, my fingers are crossed.