Love That Synopsis

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Friday night at the SCBWI Writers’ Conference, I sat on my balconey looking out on the Avenue of the Stars in Century City, contemplating my consultation with Krista Marino of Random House Childrens’ Books, coming up the next day.

I’ve been revising my third novel, Morning of the Mermaid, the story of the first mermaid. At my first SCBWI conference, three years ago, when I thought the manuscript was pretty complete, I was told that actually it needed to be “taken to the next level.” It took me a couple of years and the writing of Alex Bullied before I figured out what that level was and how to reach it. Since finishing Alex, I’ve begun a complete revision of the mermaid book. I submitted the first ten pages and a synopsis to be critiqued at this year’s conference. I wasn’t expecting much, but thought perhaps she would let me know if I was headed in the right direction.

Then a thought occurred to me — had I changed the synopsis to reflect the changes in the story? I couldn’t remember. I know I sent the pages in a hurry. I’d waited until the last minute of the deadline. And the synopsis and I — well, let’s just call a spade a spade — are not on the best terms. It seemed likely I’d botched the synopsis. I hate being anything less than professional, but it seems I’d done just that. I could have gone on my laptop to check, but I decided to let the crap fall where is may. It was too late to do anything about it.

I sat there a bit longer hating the synopsis.

It’s a common feeling. I don’t know a writer who doesn’t hate the synopsis. We complain about it, agonize over it and search relentlessly for the magic formula to write a good one. They are a necessary evil. But we don’t have to like them.

Or do we? I had an epiphany. What if I decided to love the synopsis? Change your mind, change your life, right? What if I entered into the writing of a synopsis with the same joy, the same determination to have fun, as I do when writing a story? Why not embrace the process? Why not enjoy it? Would that not be reflected in the finished product?

The internet is full of advice on writing the synopsis. Every writer’s, agent’s or editor’s website has tips. Every writer, agent, or editor has probably written an article or given a talk on the synopsis.

The amount of information can be overwhelming. And yet, we continue to read, hoping we’ve finally found The Answer. I say, take it all in. Read it all. Make notes. Try it all. And enjoy it all. Love the synopsis.

One of the workshops I took during the conference was all about this subject. There was sensible advice about format: it should be in twelve point font, one page, single spaced (approximately forty lines at a twelve point font will fit a page), written in third person, present tense, and the first mention of a character should be in ALL CAPS.

Here are some of the tips given at the conference:

* Focus on the primary plot, no subplots

* Summarize each chapter into no more than two sentences.

* Link all the best sentences in a single, chronological block of text.

* Revise the block of text for length and clarity.

* Read each finished draft aloud.

So if you are not already full to the brim of synopsis advice, this is a good start. Let go of those bad feelings about the synopsis. Start fresh with enthusiasm and confidence. You can do it. I hope I can. Stay tuned.   

The Elevator Pitch. Or Not.

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On my first day of the SCBWI writers’ conference, going up to my room, a woman joined me in the elevator. We went through the usual conference greeting:

Me: Here for the conferrence?

Her: Yes. You?

Me: Yes, third time. Very exciting.

Her: Are you a writer or an illustrator?

Me: Writer. Middle grade. You?

Her: I’m an agent.

My mind went into conniptions. An agent! In an elevator no less. My brain could not access my “elevator pitch.” All I could blurt out was, “I have a great book for you!”

Then the door opened on my floor. Flushed, smiling like an idiot, I slipped out.

Yes, I said that. What an impression I must have made. Not. I didn’t get her name and, thankfully, she didn’t get mine.

When I reached my room and went through my conference packet, I came upon a couple of pages I wish I’d read before talking to anyone — a series of questions and answers and The Do’s and Don’t’s of Conference Etiquette. Apparently the better way to approach an agent or editor is not to talk about your work, but to show an interest in theirs. You don’t need to tell them about your work, unless they ask. Instead, ask them questions that give you more insight into their personal tastes. It’s likely the conversation will turn to your work.

Makes sense. You ask what they look for, what appeals to them, and not only do they like that, given that most people are pitching their books at them, but you learn whether they’d be a good fit for your manuscript. It’s a win win.

A good suggestion for that quick summary of your project: Be able to answer these two questions in one sentence. 1) What do you do? 2) What are you working on? One sentence.

Although we go to these conferences with the hope of connecting with an agent or editor, through our desperation, anxiety and momentary lapse in judgement, we often sabotage our own efforts. We need to keep calm and remember these are people. Mostly they are very nice people who want us to succeed. When we succeed, they do, too.

We were strongly advised not to pitch to editors or agents in the hallways, at lunch, between sessions, in the elevator (oops), or anywhere in between. Again, and I guess this cannot be stressed too much, editors and agents appreciate questions that allow you to get to know them and their house/agency so that you can submit to or query them once the conference is over, if they are a potential fit.

That’s another great thing about attending conferences. Most of the agents and editors on the faculty will be open to submissions just because you were at the conference. It cracks the door open a bit.

The best thing, of course, is to go prepared and to not act like you’ve seen your favorite movie star when someone introduces themselves as an agent.

There’s so much to learn about this business. Stay tuned.