Monday, July 18, 2011

The Contest Writer's Synopsis

Last week, a friend and I were talking about a synopsis she had to evaluate for work. There were things she liked about it, but something about it was making her pause. So we talked about it, and almost immediately, I knew something about the author of the synopsis. She most likely hadn't written the whole book.

How could I know that? There were two dead giveaways. First, the author touted a long list of contest wins. Now, don't get me wrong. I think contests are a fine way to get your work in front of an editor and gain some credibility in the early stages of your career. But there comes a point when a new writer ought to be shifting out of contest territory and into publication territory. If you just stay in contest-land, we'll kind of wonder why. Is there something wrong with the books? Is there a lack of follow-through? Is the writer somehow addicted to the contest vibe?

In this case, it seemed pretty clear to me that there was a lack of follow-through. And that brings us to the synopsis.

Let's say your synopsis is 4 pages long, and your book is 400 pages long. You can expect that roughly one synopsis page will be spent on every 100 pages of the text, but that's not a perfect ratio. In fact, probably the first quarter and the last quarter will take up slightly more room in the synopsis, and the middle two quarters will be slightly compressed. This is because the premise and the resolution often take more word space to explain properly, and if you need to compress the synopsis, it's usually easiest to compress the plotty stuff, which ordinarily would fall in the middle two quarters of the synopsis.

In this case, we saw a very different pattern. The first half of the synopsis was devoted to the first 50-75(ish) pages of the book. There was quite a lot of detail about the initiating event and the events in the early chapters. It was apparent that the author really understood this part of her story.

But after that, the synopsis read like a tick-list of unrelated events. "They go shopping. Then he goes on vacation for a week. Then she talks to her mom on the phone. Then they run into each other at the coffee shop. He gives her a newspaper. Then she realizes she's in love. Then he surprises her at her office. The end."

Those were not the actual events, of course. The actual events were somewhat more interesting in some ways, but they were also as wholly unrelated to each other as the items in that list. There was no sense of causation. No clear arc being described for either of the characters. It read as though the author had brainstormed a list of things that could plausibly happen in this particular story, but hadn't thought through whether these things amounted to a plot.

If she had written the entire book and shown it to betas and spent some time analyzing her own work, I'm sure the author -- who demonstrated competence in so many ways -- would have realized the disjointed nature of the events in the book. In fact, I hazard to say she would have realized it as she was writing the first draft. At some point, she would have asked a question about why her characters were behaving in this manner, and she would have realized the motivation and arcs were poorly conceived and the plot was just a mash of events with no "glue" to hold them together. (Yes, she would have. Seriously, you could tell how smart she was.)

So, the synopsis was beautifully detailed for the first half, and a disconnected list of episodes for the second half. The first half of the synopsis focused on the first eighth of the book. The author had a long list of "first chapter" type contest wins. This led me to conclude that the entire book had not been written, and I think my friend agreed. She didn't cut the author loose at that point, because there was strong evidence of talent, but she was wary about how things might proceed from that point.

This one, we'll file under "Things You Can Tell Just By Reading The Synopsis."



Julie Harrington said...

This brings up a question I've been wonder about (aka freaking out over). I have an editor who has requested proposals from me -- first 3 chapters and synopsis -- but they're for books that aren't finished. They're not meant to be finished. This is sort of a "Let me get a look at where you're going and let you know if we're even interested in seeing the book and then we can kind of walk through the process together" type of deal.

I've never done this kind of proposal before. I've always finished the book before attempting to write a synopsis let alone submit it. It seems so intimidating! How do writers do this without, well, writing it all first?


Christine Tyler said...

Oh man, sweet post! I've never read about this situation, so it was really interesting. Sounds like you analyzed that really well, and I bet your conclusions were correct. Made a lot of sense!

Edittorrent said...

Julie, I can't imagine why an editor would ask for proposals for books you never mean to finish. This editor must have a lot more time than other editors. Or maybe a free lance editor whose job is to get you to a finished manuscript. (I need one of those, or maybe a dominatrix who will pull out a whip and point to one of my unfinished masterpieces and force me to finish.)

An agent, yes, might want to see "what else you've started" to guide you to finishing.

If you figure out a way to finish one of those unfinished proposals, tell me how! I have loads of them.

Not sure why an editor would want them. I keep thinking of Tony Hillerman's advice, that when he stopped writing proposals, he started selling books. (Alas, I'm like Theresa's friend's submitter-- really good at proposals, not so good at endings!)


green_knight said...

Alicia, it seems you're asking the wrong question: not 'how do I finish this' but 'why did I decide not to finish it'? I once got distracted by a shinier idea (ooops), but most of the time, if a book petered out after writing a short while, it was because there was something fundamentally wrong with it. Too clicheed. Not enough at stake. Too hard a sell (the reader would have had to trust me for three hundred pages... I still don't think I could pull that one off). Wrong for the market. Etc etc. And I was better off finding that out in the stge where I'd written a couple of chapters than the one book that I wrote out of order, which had plenty of things happening, and, when I tried to stitch it together, turned out to have no plot.

Edittorrent said...

I think I can say with 100% certainty that Alicia's story ideas are solid. It's a time management issue, not a story management issue.


Edittorrent said...

GK, yeah, I'm getting too old to have four jobs AND a writing career. I used to be able to do that, but now the brain doesn't fragment so easily. :)


green_knight said...

T&A, I expect any writer to take their strongest ideas forward and leave others by the wayside - the doesn't mean they're _bad_, but there's probably a reason they don't get written in the end and something else does. And no matter *how* good a writer, I'd still hope they'll follow their best ideas, and reality dictates that out of a bunch of equally shiny things they'll opt for the most commercial ones.

Also, I wouldn't be surprised if having more time wouldn't lead to more ideas, so the ratio between things that get written and things that don't won't necessarily change...