The Secret to Writing the Dreaded Synopsis...and its Little Friends: the Hook, Logline, and Pitch

If you "won" at NaNo, and you're madly editing that manuscript, you're probably thinking about how you're going to go about sending it into the marketplace.

Or you may have spent years working on a manuscript and one of your New Year's resolutions will be to get it published.

Whether you're going to jump on the old query-go-round or you're planning to go indie, you need to learn a new set of skills—how to "pitch" a book, using things like hooks, loglines, and...the dreaded synopsis.

Yes, even if you self-publish. That's because your "product description" on Amazon and other retail sites will combine elements of all of three. Book reviewers usually ask for a short synopsis, too.

NOTE: If you plan to query agents or publishers, be sure to check the individual websites to see exactly what each one requires. The specifics may vary even between different agents in the same agency.

A query letter usually starts with a hook, and most agents want you to include a one or two page synopsis (double spaced) as well.

I've heard a lot of agents say they don't pay much attention to the synopsis, but they want to see one to find out if the book has a satisfactory ending. They also want to be reassured that zombie werewolves from Betelgeuse don't suddenly appear in chapter 25 of your sweet romance.

But a few agents and editors read them carefully. And some still ask for hefty ten-to-twelve page tomes. (It's my own opinion that an agent who asks for a twelve-page synopsis lives too hopelessly in the past to be much good representing work to modern publishers, but make your own decision on that.) So you do want that synopsis to be polished and enticing.

If you get to meet an agent or publisher in person, you're also going to want to have a great pitch ready, and you may get asked for a logline.

So logline, pitch, hook, and synopsis: what are they? Aren't they all sort of the same thing?

They are similar in that they are composed in the present tense and give the bare bones of your story. The difference is length and manner of presentation. And a synopsis always tells the ending.

LOGLINE is a term once applied only to screenplays, but it has been creeping into the literary world. It consists of one or two sentences describing the story’s premise, like a film description in TV Guide:

Here’s the basic formula for a logline:

When______happens to_____, he/she must_____or face_____.

Here's one for the Wizard of Oz:

“When Dorothy Gale gets tornadoed to Oz and accidentally squashes an unpopular head of state, she must find a wizard to help her get home to Kansas, or be killed by the ruler's evil sister and some nasty flying monkeys.”

A HOOK is longer—a paragraph or two giving the characters, premise, and conflict, like a book jacket cover blurb. (Skipping the cover blurb accolades. Self-praise doesn’t just sound narcissistic, it screams “clueless amateur.”) It should also state genre and word count.

The hook should be the main component of a query letter to an agent, editor, or reviewer and is essential for your back copy or Amazon blurb.

“The Wizard of Oz is a middle-grade fantasy novel set in a magical land where much of the population suffers from self-esteem issues. When Dorothy Gale, a Kansas farm girl, arrives via tornado, she accidentally kills the ruling witch. The witch’s powerful sister wants Dorothy dead, but Dorothy only wants to get home, which she cannot do until she finds the right traveling shoes.”

Or you might want to try the “Hook Me Up” formula of the late, great Miss Snark. (Although I suggest stating the setting first if it's an important factor, especially for fantasy or sci-fi.)

X is the main guy; he wants to do_____.
Y is the bad guy; he wants to do_____. 
They meet at Z and all L breaks loose.
If they don't resolve Q, then R starts and if they do it's L squared.

Don’t take the “bad guy” reference to mean you need to make your novel sound as if it has a Snidely-Whiplash-type villain. The antagonist can be anything that keeps the protagonist from his goals, from a wicked witch to the hero’s own addictions. If you want to read more on antagonists, Kristen Lamb has a fantastic blogpost on the subject, “Introducing the Big Boss Troublemaker.”

A PITCH can contain either or both of the above. You can make a pitch in writing or in person. It tells—in the shortest possible time—what your book is about and why somebody should buy it. This is what you prepare before you go to that Writers’ Conference, hoping you’ll get trapped in an elevator with Stephen Spielberg or an editor from Knopf.

When composing your pitch, you want to answer these questions: Who? Where? What’s the conflict? What action does the protagonist take? What are the stakes? How is it unique?

To get started, it's fun to play with Kathy Carmichael’s clever “pitch generator”. It's fun and amazingly useful.

Here’s her generator’s pitch for the Wizard of Oz.

The Wizard of Oz is a 54,000-word fantasy novel set in the magical land of Oz. Dorothy Gale is a Kansas farm girl who believes a legendary wizard can help her get home. She wants to return to Kansas to be with her Auntie Em. She is prevented from attaining this goal because her transportation vehicle is sitting on a dead witch, she’s being attacked by flying monkeys and her companions are a little dim.

A SYNOPSIS is a run-down of the complete plot, including the ending. Also include the genre and word count up front. It needs to include some details, but not a lot (one page is about 250 words.)

I know. Yikes. It's like taking your baby and squashing it into a horrible little box that hides all its beauty and subtlety and sparkle.

But here's the secret: you'll find it much easier to write a synopsis if you start with a hook or logline first. Try putting your story into Kathy's "pitch generator" and then add to the result.

That's right: work on the logline first. Imagine you're pitching your book to a film producer. Get all the sizzle you can into those few words.

Then write your synopsis using that as your first sentence.

This is a trick I learned from my friend Catherine Ryan Hyde, who was the #1 author on Amazon this summer, and the author of the iconic novel Pay It Forward. Here's what she says in our book, How to Be a Writer in the E-Age:

"You were worried about boiling 104,000 words down to 250. Weren’t you? Now you’re not boiling get to expand it! You’ve got some elbow room, now! Boy howdy! You get to fill up a whole damn page!"

Try it. I'm not pretending it's not going to be easy, but Catherine's method makes it less painful.

In all four, you also want to convey the tone of your book:

1) You can have a humorous logline:

“When the romantic adventures of a southern belle are interrupted by an icky war PLUS her goody-two-shoes-BFF steals her boyfriend, Scarlett whips up a fabulous outfit in order to seduce Mr. Wrong, who in the end, doesn’t give a damn.”

2) Or punch it up by emphasizing high-stakes conflict:

“With his life in constant danger from the monstrous carnivore Snowbell, young Stuart must fight for his life, and prove once and for all whether he is a man or a mouse.”

3) Or go for the thrills by emphasizing the most dangerous scene:

“Marked for death along with his companions, a toy rabbit must learn to cry real tears in order to save himself from being thrown into a burning pit by the boy loves.”

4) Or give the overall premise:

"When the adopted son of Kansas farmer discovers he’s a strange visitor from a another planet, he tries to save the world, one clueless girl reporter at a time, in spite of opposition from an assortment of megalomaniacs armed with green rocks."

Then keep working on it.

Remember these are your most important sales tools. Whether you're selling to an agent, editor, or the general public, you want to make them sizzle. Pick out the elements that make your story unique and hit them hard.

Then leave out all the other stuff. Yeah, I know—easier said than done. But it's worth putting a lot of time into. These few words are as important as any you’ll ever write.

What about you, scriveners? Do you hate writing synopses? I'd love for readers to try the pitch generator and put your pitches in the comments.

Books of the Week

This week I'm featuring two books by Dr. Shirley Seifried Allen, my mom. 
She died last Sunday night, December 1st, at the age of 92. 
She published her mystery Academic Body at the age of 89.

I hope you'll consider buying one to honor her. I learned most of what I know about writing synopses (and pretty much everything else) from her. She was a Bryn Mawr PhD. who taught English Literature and creative writing at the University of Connecticut for many years.
She's also the author of the nonfiction book, Samuel Phelps and Sadler's Wells Theatre, published by Wesleyan University Press. It's out of print, but still available used. 

Roxanna Britton, a Biographical Novel. Special December sale: Only 99c on Amazon, Amazon UK, and Amazon CA

"This has become one of my all time favorite stories of "real" people. Ms. Allen's adept use of dialogue and her clear eye for drama and suspense kept me compulsively turning the pages. Her evocation of a bygone era, rich with descriptive details--the historical Chicago fire is one vivid example--is absolutely brilliant. 

I will never forget Sanny and her family, especially her struggle and her daughters' struggle to become individuals in a male dominated world. But it is family that triumphs in the end; and the need for it to survive resonates most deeply in my mind and heart. An excellent novel that I highly recommend to anyone who enjoys reading true stories about people who not only overcome adversity with grace and integrity but through strength of character also prevail. Well done, Ms. Shirley Allen!"...Ann Carbine Best

Academic Body: A Classic Cozy Mystery in the Agatha Christie tradition. Available for $2.99 at Amazon US, Amazon CA, Amazon UK, Nook (where it is mysteriously only 99c), and Kobo

"The academics at Weaver College are maintaining their exemplary standards, setting a stellar example for their students. Extramarital affairs, presumptuous posturing, blackout drinking, and gossip are part of campus life for this faculty. 

But when their blackmailing dean is suddenly murdered, all who saw him that night become suspects. Retired stage director Paul Godwin, lately turned professor, and his actress wife Lenore ponder the dean's death with the theatrical knowledge of given circumstances, personal motivation, and a thorough comprehension of Shakespeare's classic tragedies and Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, which seamlessly parallel the action. 

A hilarious farce about college life delivers us to the circumstances that lead to murder most foul."...Kathleen Keena

Opportunity Alerts

Dog Lovers! Here's one for you: AMERICAN KENNEL CLUB FICTION WRITING CONTEST  NO ENTRY FEE. Submit one short story, maximum 2,000 words. Entries can be on any subject, but must feature a dog. (But it can't talk) Prizes $500, $240, $100. Deadline January 31, 2014. 

CRAZYHORSE PRIZES IN FICTION, NONFICTION, POETRY $20 fee (includes subscription). This is a biggie, well worth the fee. This venerable literary magazine has published the likes of John Updike, Raymond Carver and Billy Collins. Winners in each category receive $2,000 and publication. Submit up to 25 pages of prose or three poems. All entries considered for publication. Submissions accepted in the month of January 2014 only.

DRIFTLESS REVIEW ANNUAL FLASH FICTION CONTEST $15 ENTRY FEE for up to three stories. Each short-short story limited to 500 words. $500 prize. Deadline December 31

Dark Continents Publishing's Guns and Romances anthology. They're looking for previously unpublished short fiction from 3500-9000 words. Any genre as long as there's a tough protagonist, weapons, and... at least one reference to music. Sounds interesting. Payment rate is a one-off of $20 per story plus a percentage of the ebook royalties. Publication estimated in late-2014. More info on the website. Closing date for submissions is February 28, 2014.

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