Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Dreaded Synopsis

Earlier this week I was notified that my sixth Alafair Tucker mystery, The Wrong Hill to Die On, has been scheduled for publication in October, 2012. I still have some rewriting to do, and a few weeks before I must have the perfected manuscript in. I have already received the multipage author questionnaire many presses ask their authors to fill out with detailed information about the book, the author, publicity plans and ideas, and lists of institutions, groups, and people who may be interested in receiving an advance copy of the book for review. Most of this information I can gather and send in later. However, the minute the book was placed on the publisher's schedule, she sent me the following note:

I need the following items as soon as humanly possible.
1. A subtitle/series title
2. A 250 word summary.
3. A brief bio, and I mean brief.
4. An author photo with credit line.
5. Cover suggestions.

One and three through five are a piece of cake, but that second one is a killer, as anyone who as ever tried to summarize a novel can attest. How do you reduce your brilliant tome to its barest essence in such a way that readers will be whipped into a frenzy of anticipation and beat down the doors of their local bookstore in their desire to get their hands on your book the minute it comes out?

The regular contributors to Type M are all writers with media, advertising, education and literature backgrounds who have learned from hard use and sheer practice how to go about it. Some may even enjoy it, but I find it painful. Yet being able to summarize your book in a few words and make it interesting is an incredibly important skill for an author to have.

Here’s the technique I’ve developed over the years: I start by writing a summary of the story that is as long, wordy, flowery, poetic, and descriptive as I think it needs to be, and word-count take the hindmost. Then I go back and cut out the flowers and the poetry. Then out comes the descriptive. I don’t need to say who this character is. This plot point or side story which I mentioned is not a crucial element of the story. In the fifth draft, I realize I don’t need this sentence. In the sixth draft, I don’t need this clause. This word. By the the tenth draft, the summary is as distilled and to the point as Scotch whiskey.

Practice makes perfect, too. For my fifth book, Crying Blood, it only took me five drafts to reach the mark. Draft 1 - 663 wds. Draft 2 - 535 wds. Draft 3 - 450 wds. Draft 4 - 353. Draft 5 - 256 wds.

I've just begun working on the summary for The Wrong Hill to Die On, but this time I've started out with a mere 353 words. Maybe it'll only take four drafts this time. Wish me luck.


Anonymous said...

I DO wish you luck, Donis. This distillation that is interesting yet sparse is always a challenge. Thanks for sharing your method~

Donis Casey said...

The process does make me admire ad men, Auntie Em

Ellis Vidler said...

Donis, it's still tough. I like your idea though. I need to get a lot better at this. Your method will help.

Charlotte Hinger said...

Terrifying! I would rather write the whole novel

Donis Casey said...

Charlotte, Laurie King once told me the same thing.

Col Bury said...

It's almost impossible to squash a novel into 250 words. Almost. It's a nightmare, but such severe cutting can help us as writers.

Cool site. Glad I found you.