What percentage of time do you (should you) spend on your blurb, summary, synopsis, pitch? When should you do it? Some people agonise over this more than over their novel itself. I know people who’ve spent three years constantly refining their synopsis, (me, me) tweaking a word or two with each rejection that explodes on the doormat.
Everyone has some idea as to what extras might make their work look good, some idea of what a sales pitch might be, but how do these work and what might grab attention, or help or… how can my book live in the mind of someone else! Give me the secret formula!
I’ve had some good advice from here and there, and I’ll stick it at the end.
First the bloggering…
One thing I love (and hate…and envy) about the film scripting world is their total dedication to the saleability of their work. I’m not talking sales in terms of lucre or Hollywood deals particularly here either. I’m just talking the selling of an idea to an audience – a small audience at first, maybe a chosen person that you trust to test an idea on, or maybe someone with influence, someone who can help shape a plot, make encouraging noises or even fund some development – ultimately, that first audience, the initial few people you can hope will tell their friends, fellow-professionals, millionaire arts benefactors or global publishing gurus. Foot in the door. Thin end of wedge. First step on the journey &c. &c.
Film script people are the kings of this. They know it, study it, perfect it and wouldn’t dream of working in any other way. Take a couple of examples from script writing gurus.
Blake Snyder rams it home in Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screen Writing You’ll Ever Need (Michael Wiese, 2005). He gives us the familiar scenario of friends saying “what movie are we going to see?” and someone pitching from their own choices. What words get your mates on boards with the film you want to go to? Snyder pushes this as his “what is it?” question on page 1 and without a satisfactory answer he will not let you proceed. “if you can learn how to tell me ‘What is it?’ better, faster and with more creativity, you’ll keep me interested…” (p.4.) and if you are a script writer in the making you will then learn about loglines, getting them right, packing them with the right stuff, whether that’s irony or a hanging “what if..”
“Like Proust’s madeleine, a good log line, once said, blossoms in your brain.” (Snyder, p.7.)
Rob McKee, as ever, gives the intellectually heavy-weight view of story design and divides his premise, “the idea that inspires the writer’s desire to create a story” from his controlling idea, looking to “the story’s ultimate meaning expressed through the action and aesthetic emotion of the last act’s climax.” (p.112.). He eschews the term ‘theme’ given that this is regularly confused with single word ideas that are more about setting or genre – ‘poverty’, ‘love’ and so on.
His controlling idea is then something that is functional and it is, “a coherent sentence that expresses a story’s irreducible meaning.” (p.115.). He subdivides further, his Controlling Idea [now given capitals] has “Value plus Cause”, giving fascinating examples of how a story can be expressed as the ultimate Value (expressed in the climax to the story and identifiably positive or negative) + the Cause, the reasons that the value will have turned positive of negative.
Story is weighty, brilliant and a must-have for any writer, of course, and after fascinating discussion Rob McKee will prove that a story you thought you knew is actually pinned to the Value Cause Controlling Idea and a student can play with this, ending up with something such as “Death ensues (Value) when a lover is unfaithful (Cause)” and you never knew Scooby Doo had so much in it.
McKee and Snyder are talking about what you need to start with, as is Lagos Egri with his ideas on “premise” in The Art of Dramatic Writing (Touchstone, 2004 (first published as How to Write a Play, Simon and Schuster 1942)). Here the premise for King Lear is offered as “Blind trust leads to destruction” and Egri seems very unwilling to have this as anything other than the incontrovertible single possibility for Lear. For Egri value, character and direction are, as for McKee, all well compacted into a line like “Frugality leads to waste” (Cf discussion p.8.) with a suggestion of what kind of character we’re dealing with (a frugal one here or a trusting one above) what the and what a value leads to.
WIth a bit of background reading and your own fiddling there’s a chance to get something like a formula for successful log lines, usually something that suggests high stakes, primal values, a clear sense of direction and end, a notion of conflict and an idea of which side the assumed narrator will be on.
Phew – all that in one line and if you take Snyder’s view then you need to get it in place early.
Yet tales are legendary of those who’ve sold an idea, a one-liner. I’ve heard everything from the woman who sold a pitch on Alice going back to Wonderland as a grandmother to that back of a fag packet seven words that has publishers at each others’ throats – probably something about wizards or celebrity break-ups.
Tips for Writers – Log Lines, Premises
- 1 Sales Line. You need a line. One line, call it log-line, elevator pitch etc. Someone will ask you what your book’s about and they’ll give you at least one line to tell them what it is. Make sure you can.
- 2 Help-to-get-it-done line. This is perhaps different from the sales pitch. This is your writerly premise. This is a line for you. It will help you begin and continue and hopefully to finish. When you’re working your writerly premise can be what you tell people you’re doing and what your book’s about. The most important thing is that it will remind you of where you’re going. Even if you don’t work to a plan (see below) there’s a chance that this will save you when you’re wondering whether or not you should keep going with the project.
- For either line the basic is.
- Prove it has movement, that there’s a push towards something. “Jack sits” has no movement, “Jack escapes” does.
- Prove it has character, someone (or someone with a trait or mission) who’s worth following. “Jack” doesn’t, “Unjustly imprisoned Jack” does.
- Prove it has basic human interest (what Snyder calls primal) something that your audience will see as a deeply rooted human motive or flaw. They must believe is worth reading about. “Jack the workaday businessman” probably doesn’t cut the mustard, “Jack the workaholic businessman” perhaps does – “Jack the greedy, fraudulent businessman”… now we’re getting there.
Beginning to write a novel
So, sounds quite a good way to begin a project. Decide what your pitching line would be. Test it on people. Only spend your development time on a story that you can engage people with in one line. Makes total sense, especially if you’re a real writer who’s looking for sales and meeting deadlines.
So why do novelists so HATE this approach?
I’ll do another post on planning as it’s a massive elephant in the room of any creative writing class, but synopsis writing falls into the same area. Whenever the idea of starting with a tight ‘writerly premise’ comes up (number 2 type above), everyone rebels. There’s that betrayed groan from classes and usually someone says that novel writing is about the voice and not the plot, and someone else will have gone through a university literature course and point out that all the best novels have no plot and are about the modernist sprawl of life, and someone else will know that their far-reaching masterwork that deals with the complexities of man’s inhumanity to man across the panoply of universal existence couldn’t possibly be squeezed into a single line.
The problem, the aching horrible truth of the problem, is often that we’ve written (or imagined) a baggy old sag-sack of a novel that isn’t about anything much except the journey that some version of ourselves ended up on when we couldn’t stop typing.
Ever heard this conversation:
- You’ve written a book, what’s it about?
- Oh, it’s just, well, time of course is the main theme, time and being, but it shifts between frames and realities constantly – really of course it’s about literature, about how we write and how we exist through writing
- You’ve written a book, what’s it about?
- Destiny. [pause and give sombre frown as though only credible in black & white and posing for jacket blurb]
- You’ve written a book, what’s it about?
- It’s about this girl who wants to write a novel but everyone’s just really horrible to her and puts her down all the time and publishers just don’t want to know and then her boyfriend leaves her and she goes on this holiday and everyone ignores her so she writes and writes and…
Add your own examples, these are slight paraphrases of things I’ve heard.
The fact is that we do want to write novels for all sorts of reasons. Chief among these is to do with exploring, working out, testing, discovery. It’s rare even for successfully publishing professionals not to have some of that need to just set characters and events in motion and see where they end up.
McKee does have a great point though:
The more beautifully you shape your work around one clear idea, the more meanings audiences will discover in your film as they take your idea and follow its implications into every aspect of their lives (McKee, p.115.)
If you can pare away the meanings that you’ve invested in or discovered in your work, then there’s a chance that you’ll find the idea at the heart of it and this will help with that next stage, the one that lets you write the synopsis or blurb or killer pitch.
Tips for writers – working towards a synopsis
Some works are easier than others to bring to a successful synopsis-form.
Here’s a thought or two on the type of synopsis that goes to publishers:
Character – do your characters have names that suggest something unusual or interesting about them? If not then a straightforward sense of who they are might be appreciated by the synopsis reader. However frowned upon a straight forward description would be in a narrative, this is just the bones of your story and there’s no time to hide things or be vague.
What do they do? – I’ve come across (and written) synopses that never actually want to tell me what characters are doing. All very well if the novel’s main strength is its brooding moodiness or the mind-rocking descriptions of its settings. This isn’t what a synopsis does. If you’re good at descriptions stick them in the early pages of your novel so readers can see that’s what you do (or can fling it down, this not being their thing). Synopsis says who does what (possibly but not necessarily where they do it. What’s the direction and what are the various engagements.
Sense of an ending – Whatever your ideas on the story arc and the many possible cadence points that resolve a narrative, making your story seem wooly, nondescript, rambling or petering out is not usual considered a good sign of a controlled, confident and mature writing skill. That’s how-long-is-a-piece-of-string type writing is more for bloggers (ahem!). Your synopsis should show that you can control and deliver a satisfying arc towards the kind of conclusion that seems surprising but at the same time inevitable. Does the ending seem to have been inevitable given the character you have been following, do they struggle, do they deserve what they get – if your story doesn’t have this kind of satisfaction then BEWARE it may not be a story at all.
Sub-plot – let’s assume you do have a story. Maybe you have more than one in your novel. So, should you include the subplot(s). On balance, probably not. On top of the sense of engaging writing style, writerly voice, the next thing is can you develop a satisfying storyline. This is what your synopsis should prove. If you have eight largely unconnected plots this is going to be very hard to summarise – think what you could leave out just in order to demonstrate your plotting skills.
Story or narrative? – A synopsis shows the story not the narrative of your work. The suzjet not the fabula. Many publishers say they don’t bother with it until they’ve read the first few pages of the novel and then they’ll just check it’s satisfying in story terms (very different from film producers).
In other words, the way your narrative is delivered shouldn’t be the focus of your synopsis. Those secret revelations and mysteries held to the end in the novel don’t need to be held to the end of the synopsis.
It takes a bold change and may not always work for every project, but if you can give your plot in swift, neat sequence of chronological events, do it. This will help someone else understand what the book is, in its entirety rather than trying to take them on the same journey of discovery that the novel’s readers will go on.
This was an important discovery for me. I had a book that mucked about with time frames, gave a story not quite in reverse, but one that came into view very gradually as other things, almost unconnected things, seemed to happen. I really struggled to get a synopsis together. It genuinely was one of those narratives that couldn’t seemingly be compressed. The advice I got was to just tell what the actually story is, what a reader would walk away from the book with. Consequently, in the synopsis, I delivered the early bit of the story first (even though it’s not fully known until the end of the novel) and with that advice it suddenly started to come together.
However, be careful, because anyone who reads your first three chapters AND your synopsis may be confused as to what part they’re reading. In another version of my recent efforts I’ve started the synopsis to tie in with the first scene of the novel, then gone back to mop up an important backstory, then gone through the rest. It’s starting to get there, but it’s been a tough process.
Still working on sending out, so come back another time to find how Last Least Voice got on, or not…
If you’re looking for publishers and trying to get your synopsis sorted, good luck. Isabel Ashdown (Glasshopper, Hurry Up and Wait) kindly gave the following advice from her own experience:
Over the years I’ve met lots of agents and publishers – I have heard many say, ‘I never read the synopsis until I’ve read several pages of the work and decide I like it’. I’ve heard several say, ‘I don’t want you to give away too much in the synopsis,’ whilst others say, ‘I want to know how the story ends’. I’ve heard a good few say, ‘I never want to see a synopsis longer than one page.’
Tips for writers: book blurbs/ synopsis.
- Go back to your log line. Does it show character, movement, values? Think how you’ll also get some of this across, but it’s not a pitch now, it’s a synopsis.
- First move, think who’s going to read this – a potential agent or publisher, potential book-buyer, potential reader, think yourself into their shoes and what will convince them that this book is worth the time to explore further.
- Relax and give evidence of what your story is about, don’t fluff it up with assertions as to its qualities (this innovative and genre-defying debut work…&c.)
- Don’t force your your secrets, subplots, back-stories, mysteries, shadow-sleves and disturbing time-shifts into the synopsis if they don’t seem to fit. Tell it straight.
- Keep it short – no, shorter – shorter, really short. Max 2 pages is a decent guideline given to me by someone in the business-end of the business. Isabel Ashdown (above) says some publishers want just one page.
- Try to begin a novel or story knowing exactly what it’s “about”. If you prefer to work in a more exploratory suck-it-and-see way, fine, just try and find that sentence as to what it’s “about” while you’re working, preferably in the earlier stages. You will need it eventually – the sooner the better.