Synopsis versus plot outlines in queries

Dear Miss Snark,

Go ahead, call me a nitwit.
(many are called, few are chosen. try again next week)

I submitted to the Crap-o-meter, didn't get in, and now I think that's probably a good thing. I've been reading your comments about each of the entries and, while I've picked up some stellar tips, there's one thing I just don't get.

In response to many (many, many) of the queries you chide the writers for not including an obvious plot. You tell a few entrants that they've confused query with synopsis though. Is there a magical line where plot pique-ing ends and synopsis begins?

If so, where can I find it?

Right here: you need the outline of a plot in your query letter, such that hero, villain and conflict are clear.

Anything more than 50 words, or a paragraph, is heading to Synopsisville. A full page and you've gone way way way too far.

Now, for all of you screaming with anguish about not being able to pare down your 226,000 word novel to 50 words, yes you can.

Here's how:

My hero is:

He faces this problem in the first 50 pages:

His sworn enemy/treacherous friend/love interest is:

A twist in the plot is:

Answer those questions and you're in.

Start giving me genealogy and/or a police blotter report, and you're out.

It took me 25 seconds to type this.

It will take you 25 days to construct it.
Writing briefly is insanely difficult.
I know this first hand.
I write cover letters and pitch emails for a living.
I don't feel your pain cause I medicate it with gin but I know it's there.


Anonymous said...

Thanks much for this clarification, Miss S. I rewrote my query to include two paragraphs of synopsis-like plot description after reading the crap-o-meter. Now I'll go back to my three sentence pitch.

Anonymous said...

I submitted to a publication that requires that you write a story with a beginning, a middle and an end in 55 words. Exactly 55 - no more, no less.

I can't remember the link, but if anyone's interested, it's a cool little exercise.

GutterBall said...

Exactly 55 - no more, no less.

God, I love that challenge! You wanna talk tough. Writing a story that brief takes "concise" to a whole new level.

However, I must admit to liking drabbles more. 100 words, no more or less. You get a little more leeway, but not enough to go hog-wild.

As for writing a succinct, attention-catching query...well, I quiver to think that far ahead. I'm about three weeks away from writing my first for a novel (short stories are easier for me to pitch successfully), and I already have writer's block about it. Go figure.

I can write a 80,000-word novel, but I can't write a one-page query.

Anonymous said...

What a great explanation! I'm not sure I understood so clearly before now. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

You may be talking about the New Times 55 word Fiction contest, now in its 9th year. The alternative paper has published a couple of anthologies of their award winning 55-worders. The contest happens in the spring. The New Times link is http://www.newtimes-slo.com/ It's published in San Luis Obispo, on the Central Coast of California. Everbody's too busy surfing and wine tasting to have much time to read, so stories have to be short and sweet.

Anonymous said...

quote from Evil Editor 9/24
"The query is okay, but brief. The paragraph describing your plot is only four sentences. I suggest doubling that."

care to comment?

Anonymous said...

Yes, I am confused by Evil Editor, who wants a full page of story plot, it seems. Then again, he is assuming that he will not get five sample pages.

writtenwyrdd said...

Thank you for this information. I'll make sure I keep the link handy.

The Rejected Writer said...

Calling upon one of my favorite writers: Mark Twain is reported as having written at the end of a very long letter, "I'm terribly sorry for such a long letter. I didn't have time to write a short one."

That says it all.

Anonymous said...

Try this nifty little pitch generator at Kathy Carmichael's website.

Even if you don't use the results, it gets you thinking about nailing down that elusive trio, Goal, Motivation and Conflict

Anonymous said...

Hi Miss Snark! If this is my second comment, please ignore me. I got a "file not found" when I posted before, so I'm not sure what happened to my first attempt. I didn't want to deprive the comments section of my brilliance :p

I'm lucky enough to get to review books, and I find reviewing to be great practice for reducing plots to their essence. It seems to be much easier for someone outside the author's experience to summarize the plot. There's a big difference between 8 sentences and a whole page of plot summary. My reviews are usually three paragraphs at most, and I know that if I'm approaching a full paragraph and I'm still summarizing, I'm in trouble.

Nancy Beck said...

This is fantastic - I'm including a link to this on my blog.

And thanks to Susan, too; another good link!


Elektra said...

Ha ha!

Query generated:

Eros and Psyche is a 40,000 word Young Adult novel set in Ancient Times Greece. Psyche is a beautiful who believes in love. She wants To get her husband back, because She loves him. She is prevented from attaining this goal because Aphrodite won't let her.

Anonymous said...

I lurv (hiccup) Missss Smark!

werd verfcashun: gbfritrw

how I write drunk...

Anonymous said...

You think it'll take us 25 days to write a 50 word summary of our books? Ha! More like 25 months!

Here's another gem from Mark Twain. Someone needed a paper of some kind written in two days, and he asked Mark Twain, "Could you write me a two-page paper in two days?" Mark Twain told him, "I could write 30 pages in two days, but it would take me 30 days to write two pages."

Amen, Mr. Twain, Amen!

Anonymous said...

Oh, thought of a question. You said that one of the questions we must ask is: "His sworn enemy/ treacherous friend/ love interest is..." Okay, at the risk of being overly scrupulous or whatever, what if the protagonist has a sworn enemy and a love interst? I'm guessing I choose whichever has more to do with the plot because that's the obvious answer, but if anybody has any comments, or even if you just want to point and laugh at my idiocy, I'd be interested.

lfvmk: Hey, only one of the letters in the verification box isn't one of my initials! (It's "f," by the way.)

Squarehead said...

Got it, thanks. It's the skinny.