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Synopses and Excerpts

collateral tales

collateral tales

Here’s a enjoyable post by Tate Hallaway on the subject of writing synopses over at the Science Fiction & Fantasy Novelists Web site.

[Update: Right now, the WordPress site of the community of science fiction and fantasy writers over at www.sfnovelists.com seems to be missing its database. But I’ll leave the above links active in the hope they’ll be online again at some point in the future.]

Tate cries out:

If I could distill the story into clever sound bytes, I’d be an advertising mogul, not a novelist!

That’s spot-on. Writing up synopses and picking suitable excerpts quite literally means advertising your work, and that’s different from writing your work. You can go and check out a guidebook, and make yourself familiar with some of the basic techniques. But here’s my advice: if it’s a dreaded chore, hone your synopsis skills until the chore turns into fun. If it keeps being a dreaded chore, sketch a draft and give it to an experienced copy writer. It’s worth the bucks. If it’s gotta be good, and if it’s gotta be convincing, you either gotta LOVE it or give it to someone who does. I mean it.

Now why do I say this. First of all, because I’m not only an enthusiastic fiction writer, but also an enthusiastic copy writer. For me, creating a thrilling synopsis for a work of fiction I worked really hard for, for several months if not ages, puts the icing on the cake, and I don’t mean that ironically! And, not to forget, carefully selecting an excerpt, with some extra polishing efforts for maximum effect, is an equally thrilling and important step. (Most publishers nowadays, especially in the U.S., ask for the first chapter or chapters. Which, at least for me, takes away some of the fun.)

Which still doesn’t mean that your synopsis-cum-excerpt will be as good as it can get. So here’s another piece of advice if you submit to publishers who accept simultaneous excerpt/synopsis submissions: even if you’re enthusiastic about what you’ve written up, don’t empty your clip in one go. In the advertising business, there’s something called testing. Here’s how I go about it.

Since, of course, I did the general check as to which publishers’ lines my work would actually fit into before I started to write it in the first place (you do that too, right?), I can just sit down, take my list, and divide the names on it into three different groups. Each group should contain a good mix of less desirable and more desirable publishers. Then I fire off the first group. When the rejection slips start coming in, they might give me a hint or two as to how my synopsis might be improved, or how a different excerpt might be better suited, after all. And even if the rejection slips refuse to give me any such clues, I should try and tune the synopsis nevertheless, and include a different excerpt. The first time I tried this, group number one brought in zero requests. I fine-tuned and switched to a different excerpt. And, lo and behold, the second group drew three requests. Yes, three. To send in my manuscript.1

Tate’s right—advertising is an art form. If you do it, you should love it, in every respect. If you can’t bring yourself to fall in love with it, well, then don’t be above paying an experienced copy writer two or three hours worth of his or her time to polish your draft, and to maybe give you some advice on what to include for an excerpt (if need be).

Your work does deserve that much. Doesn’t it.

1 For clarification: the submission rules in Germany are somewhat different from those in the U.S.; multiple excerpt/synopsis submissions for novels are the rule, not the exception. Actually, two chief editors from major, respectable publishing houses, when questioned, stated that they would even have sent the complete manuscript to all three publishers who’d requested it, and then cherry-picked later! Well, there I drew the line, of course, and withdrew my submissions for two of the three publishers.
In the U.S, you should always check first whether the publishers on your list allow simultaneous excerpt/synopsis submissions. Many of them do, provided that you clearly state that you do so, and that you, upon acceptance by one publisher, immediately withdraw all other submissions. 
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