May 29th, 2008


from the mixed up files of Agent Manners - the dreaded synopsis

Dear Agent Manners,

I'm preparing to send out my novel, which is complete, and I also have a query letter I'm pleased with. My problem, however, is the summary. I'm having difficulty writing a summary I'm happy with that is both contained on one page and also includes all of the pertinant information.

I'm wondering how crucial the summary is when an agent is considering a project. How much weight does it carry? Should I spend a lot of time on it and delay sending out the project? Or should I go with what I have or skip it altogether?

Thanks so much for your time.

Stuck on the Summary

Dear Stuck:

Agent Manners sympathizes. The synopsis has seemed to generate an incomparable amount of dread among submitters. But Agent Manners fears it may be a necessary evil because it can also be a helpful tool. While many agents (including this one) may read sample pages or partials first, turning to the synopsis gives an opportunity for the author to communicate the balance of the story in a situation where the entire manuscript may not yet have been requested. Still, it seems that many find this laborious task of summarizing their novel even more difficult than finishing the manuscript to begin with. Step back and remember what the synopsis is supposed to accomplish. It should tell the conflict points of the story and relevant details about the characters and setting in such a way as to augment the pitch in a query letter and/or the hook of the sample pages.

Perhaps it might help to think of the synopsis as similar to the cover copy that compels the reader in the bookstore to take a further interest in the book rather than just taking a quick glimpse at the first few pages and putting it back on the shelf. Except for the fact that a synopsis should include all the spoilers. And definitely the ending. (A synopsis that ends with -- "but to find out what happens, you'll have to read the manuscript" -- is bad form.)

Agent Manners advocates against "skip[ping] it all together" -- it is one more lens with which to view your work and may give the agent valuable information in deciding whether they will request a submission. Give it your best effort and view it as one more piece of leverage in having your book stand out from the many.