Saturday 30 March 2013

Getting the synopsis right

A good synopsis can be a major selling point when you submit work to a publisher. True, we probably won’t even read it if the writing’s no good. There is a slight irony in that; it’s always easier to fix bad writing than it is to mend that a story that isn’t working. Editors tend, anyway, to know more about editing than story-telling even if they can recognise a good story when they see one. So it may seem that under-par writing could be improved. Yes, most likely, but we just haven’t got the time to do it. The writing must go somewhere else to get fixed. So, it’s not even worth looking at the synopsis just yet.
Sadly, much writing passes muster and then is rejected because it seems from the synopsis that the writer just has no story to tell. Even more sadly it’s highly likely that they do have a good story but have failed to crystalize it well in the synopsis.
We ask a lot, we know. We usually want no more than 500 words and frequently less. It takes quite a lot of skill for the writer to represent their novel effectively in that space. And it is reassuring to us that the writers we decide to publish do have that skill.
So what should writers do?
Here a few things to avoid:

Writing the synopsis like a blurb
We do need to know the whole story and it needs to be told in a business-like manner. One or two rhetorical questions might be all right – particularly if they’re actually from the point of view of the protagonist – but if you don’t feel confident with this, don’t do it.

Writing in a quirky way
You might be writing a book that is quirky in style and you may wish to represent that style in your synopsis. It is great if you can pull it off. Most people don’t manage to and then it just becomes extremely irritating.

Creating a list
Avoid:” this happens and then this happens, then this happens and then that”. The commissioning editor needs to get a feel for where all of the drama and the tension is in the plot. Don’t overwhelm her with details.   

Getting the balance wrong
Don’t have too much of any of the following though you probably need some of each of these:
·         Backstory
·         Character description
·         Setting description
·         Action
·         Exposition
·         Justification (Yu actually shouldn’t need any of this in a well-written synopsis.)  

Writing in the past tense
Normally a synopsis should be written in the present tense. After all, the book remains the same each time it is read.  

Avoid overwriting
Keep your sentences succinct and to the point. Allow that word count work for you. Make sure your style is a tight as can be. You are using a completely different writing muscle here from the one you need to write your novel. No “The reason he is here is because….”

So, what should you do? Try this:

Recipe for a synopsis
1.      Define the novel in two or three lines. What type of novel is it? Which sub-genre? What happens to the main character?
2.      Say a little about the main characters and the setting, weaving in any backstory only if it is really important.
3.      Identify the main actions – usually no more than three or four - until you reach that all important crisis point.
4.      Describe the crisis point, perhaps giving it a paragraph all of its own.
5.      Define what happens in the car-chase moment – that gap between the crisis point and the resolution.
6.      Describe the new point of stasis that your protagonist has reached. Here you may hint at a follow-up story if appropriate.

And a hot tip. Read Nicola Morgan’s excellent book about writing synopses.     

Saturday 16 March 2013

The Economics of Author Events

Publishers take a financial risk when they organise an author event or attend one an author has organised, especially if a sale or return agreement has been made with a local bookshop. Sometimes when books are returned they are no longer sellable.
Here are some case studies:

Case 1
Three writers were show-cased at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation, a tastefully converted mill in Manchester, just behind the Oxford Road station. I went along because I knew two of the writers – a poet who is a colleague and a novelist with whom I used to work.
It was a delightful evening. The third writer was interesting as well. I bought two of the books – I already had one of them. I think the publisher sold five of each title. This wouldn’t have even covered her traveling costs let alone the hire of the venue – which was packed, actually.

Case 2
I attended a launch of a collection of poems and short writings by someone I know. I was also interested in the publisher because he is young and produces the best covers I’ve ever seen. 
Again, the venue was packed. The writer clearly had a lot of friends and fans. The publisher sold twenty-five copies of the author’s book and a few other titles. I don’t know if they paid anything for the hire of the room – it was in a pub so sometimes this can be free as it’s a given that people will spend at the bar. Certainly the publisher would have covered his costs. But he’d hardly be paid for his time.

Case 3
The winner of one of our novel competitions was a young girl aged sixteen. She later confessed to having written the book when she was just fourteen. We had to make a fuss of this one. We paid for the hire of the venue - a quirky, independent cafĂ©. We paid in effect the salaries of the waitresses. The girl’s parents bought cupcakes and a drink for all of the guests.
We sold all fifty books I’d brought along and some of the author copies the family had bought. We more than covered the cost of the room but our profit would certainly not have paid for drinks etc. Let alone the cost of my travel and overnight accommodation. The book has since covered those but my time remains unpaid for.

Case 4
An imprint of one of the big five launched a book by a mid-list author in a regional branch of a high street book store, but in a town not too far from London. The charismatic editor-in-chief, after whom the imprint is named, attended – he was rather fond of the author. Many people came to the shop – and about thirty of us even went out to dinner afterwards.
The book is still in print but it never did become a best-seller.
No doubt the editor covered his immediate costs that evening but sales probably didn’t pay for his time.      

Case 5
All of the delegates from a writers’ conference attended a book launch in a High Street bookshop. We were offered wine and snacks – not sure who paid. Few people bought books because it was just too crowded.

Case 6
The first book we published was a collection of short stories mainly by authors published for the first-time. Several authors held their own events and sold over 100 copies a time.
We held a get-together in London and charged the people who attended enough to cover the cost of a buffet-lunch, a drink and the hire of the room. The book sales on the day and the slight profit on the event covered my travel expenses.
Although the book was only out for six weeks before the end of the year, each author got about £25.00 royalties – quite unusual in a collection of unknown authors.
As we’ve moved on and those writers have come back to us, now with more experience and no longer able to sell to friends and family, and as we’ve attracted more established writers also, we’ve not been able to repeat that pattern.

Case 7
We launched a book at prestigious literary festival. We got some pretty decent high-profile media coverage. It is our bestselling book. All copies ordered by the festival’s bookshop sold and they ordered a few more than normal.
In fact, not all sold at the festival but the bookshop owner decided to keep the rest and even gave us a donation for the charity the book supports.
However, there were quite a few entertainment expenses.
Nevertheless the book continues to trickle out.

Book events aren’t just about selling books on the day
Book events are, in fact, a type of PR. It is fine for them to be loss-leaders. Frankly, my favourite type of entertainment is a book event. I’m probably pretty typical of all of those who work in the book industry. I love the whole process. I relish being around books and all those in the involved in the process of making them. What else would I do with my time? We have to make money and we have to be paid for what we do, but other than that … Even those involved with the big five would get far more return on their effort if they invested their business acumen in any other industry apart from farming. Theatre is probably on a par and possibly the other arts.
We feel, though, immensely privileged that we spend our time doing what we love.