The Synopsis Snare



A friend at Random House sent me a galley of the forthcoming Margaret Atwood novel (happy Mother’s Day to me). It is the third in her Maddadam trilogy that takes place in a post-apocalyptic world in which most humans have succumbed to a plague. Those who remain are not having such a good time of it.

I loved the first two novels; the second more than the first. I read them out of order because when the first book, Oryx and Crake, was published (despite my admiration for the Atwood oeuvre, and despite my adoration of The Handmaid’s Tale) I did not think that a dystopian novel would be my cup of tea. As a grown-up, it seems that I’m more inclined toward bleak cautionary tales with real-world settings. Of course I was wrong, as I often am, about my teacup. The Year of the Flood won me over and sent me to the library the next day in search of the previously passed-over Oryx and Crake, and I’ve been waiting for book three ever since.

Even so, I nearly did not make it past the second page of Maddadam. Upon opening the book, I found a detailed, multi-page synopsis of the first two books—ostensibly provided as a service to get first time readers up to speed. I dutifully started on my refresher course and found it such hard-going that I began to doubt that I’d ever liked volumes 1 and 2 in the first place. Eventually I gave up and just started the novel—which had me spellbound in no time. But even the august and somewhat offbeat Margaret Atwood is not especially good at crafting a compelling plot summary.

I relate this as a cautionary tale of the non-apocalyptic variety. Authors, do not attempt a comprehensive summary of your project in your query letters, especially if your book involves genetically modified beasts like wolvogs or pigoons or fantastical names/kingdoms of any stripe. Instead, think about hooking your agent, hooking your editor—and then include a terrific first chapter. I guess there are agents out there who don’t want a sample chapters along with the query, but rest assured that I (and my DGLM colleagues) do.


4 Responses to The Synopsis Snare

  1. Kevin A. Lewis says:

    As a matter of technique, I think it’s wise to avoid spinning a storyline so convoluted you need a Talmudic scholar to help you make sense of it, and since the apocalyptic and dystopian markets are saturated with this kind of stuff, I too tend to stick with real-world settings at this point. For a long time, I sent out sample chapters and was universally ignored…(Present agency not excepted, I fear) However, since adopting a sell-the-sizzle-not-the-steak approach I’ve been getting manuscript requests even from agents who are normally terrified of heavy real-world subject matter, so it’s only a matter of time. Don’t worry, I’ll be sure to post a nyah,nyah,nyah shoutout when it happens, After all, you guys are the only agency that has a lively real-time blog where one can pop in and talk shop-so keep it up!

  2. Kevin A. Lewis says:

    One small addendum… I think the sample chapter on top of an intense query letter was a bit too much like the synopsis overload you described, hence the better results with just the query. Message ends.

  3. Siri Kirpal Kaur Khalsa says:

    The only prologues I never read are the ones that summarize the previous books. I’ve yet to see a good one.

  4. D. C. DaCosta says:

    P.G. Wodehouse addressed this in his Bertie Wooster stories. When introducing a character who has appeared in previous books, Bertie candidly tells us, “I never know how much to tell about” these people, and then does so in as few words as possible (max. 100?). The combination of the apology, the brevity, and the wit in which the summary is wrapped make for an enjoyable review of the earlier stories.
    It ain’t what you do, it’s the way what you do it, and they don’t call him The Master for nothing!

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