I’ve been concentrating the last few days on sales and marketing, trying to connect my words with people who may actually want to pay me for them. Short stories are (relatively) simple — a potential publisher (or overworked minion) reads the story and decides if it’s worthwhile. So, for that effort I need only a simple cover letter with a one or two sentence blurb about the story, a bit of biographical data, and the story does the rest, living or dying on its own merits.
A novel is a more difficult sell. Nobody has time to read all the crappy writing that comes over the threshold every day, so the evaluation process has been streamlined. This makes things more difficult for the deserving writer, but it makes things possible for the agents and editors (and their minions) who have better things to do than read bad fiction. (Better things like, for instance, reading my fiction.)
The chaff is separated from the wheat based on a few criteria; the initial submission to an agent is the minimum amount of material required to prove that the writing is not so badly flawed that it’s not worth any further consideration. The reader has a giant ‘NO’ stamp hovering over the page during the entire evaluation. An agent wants to know a few key facts: 1) Can this guy write? Does he have command of the language, with coherent paragraphs and facile use of imagery? 2) Can he put together a coherent narrative — an actual story with a beginning, a middle, and an end? 3) Are there interesting people who grow or change? 4) (bonus) Is the writer a pro who will be reasonable to work with?
Question 1 is answered with a sample of of the actual work. This is often (but not always) the first three chapters of the story. The bonus question 4 is answered with a polite, informative, and coherent cover letter. That leaves two questions which much be answered by a separate piece of writing, a marketing piece drafted solely for this purpose, called the ‘brief synopsis’. I have been wrestling with this beast off an on for more than a year, now. It is not a simple exercise. How do you distill a whole damn novel into a few paragraphs, give some idea of characters and events, and somehow retain the drama you just used tens of thousands of words to build?
I had a synopsis I was satisfied with, but increasingly I discovered that the definition of ‘brief’ that my first effort was based on was by no means typical. Back in I went with the text machete, but when I chopped out a bunch, the remainder wasn’t compelling. I started from scratch. Somewhere back in time on this blog you can read about my pleasure with the result. I managed to maintain this happy feeling for quite some time by avoiding rereading it. Now I’m pretty sure that although it sucks less than the first attempt, it still sucks.
Quite by accident I stumbled across a description of a synopsis that carried one helpful bit of information that none of the others ever did: Start with a paragraph that describes the structure of your story. The Monster Within takes place in four parts that are defined by the progression of the main character through four stages of personal change. By starting with that simple fact, then by describing the four stages, the synopsis is much more coherent and focuses attention on the character-driven nature of the story.
That synopsis advice runs counter to other help articles I’ve read, but hit me as such an obvious and practical tip that I wonder why I never did that before. Perhaps I even did, but then read too many “how to write a synopsis” pieces that focussed on simply condensing the story. (Actually, I still haven’t gone back to read my current synopsis. Maybe I snuck the structural information in there anyway. I’ll check after I finish the first draft of the new one.)
Once more must I muster all my skill to write a nonfiction article about a work of fiction, that somehow is a faithful representation as well as a compelling read in its own right. This time I’m ignoring the advice of all those helpful ‘how-to’ articles, and just trying to be natural. It’s been going pretty well, although I haven’t checked the length yet. That could come as an ugly surprise.
I should say it was going pretty well, right up until I got to the end. I left out so many plot points through the course of the synopsis that I’m stumped about how to make the ending make sense. Instead, I am sitting here writing about writing about my novel. (I suppose I’ll have to leave a comment about writing this episode.)
It just occurred to me that I could write a completely different ending that works for the synopsis. Once someone bothers to read the whole novel, the mismatch won’t matter… right?