A Writer’s Notebook: query plot synopsis

So, first some notes:

I’ve skipped a couple of weeks of the Writer’s Notebook, not because I haven’t been working but because I’ve been working on writing not really suited to the Notebook. I’m in a place right now where I have a lot of finished work I want to get into print, and it feels like a more productive use of my time to focus on submissions — and occasional revisions, if they prove necessary — than on new writing.

Of course, I’ve posted revision exercises before, but I’ve shied away from them lately for two reasons: 1) there are only so many ways to demonstrate revision, and most of them involve lots of lengthy text for comparing old drafts to new, which makes showing you revision work difficult and/or repetitive; and 2) the revisions I’ve been working on lately have been of work I’m actively submitting, and I don’t want any posts here to interfere with a story’s chances for publication elsewhere.*

So I’ve been in hiding, busy but secretive.

It occurred to me today, though, that I might share some of what I’ve been up to in the form of plot synopses, which is what appear below. As I usually do, I’ll explain the “exercise” (such as it is) after the Notebook entry, or you can skip to it below. For now, just bear in mind that these story synopses are for three published stories and one unpublished story, all from the same collection.

A Few May Remember

Sharon receives a letter mistakenly telling her she’s dead and decides to make a joke out of it with a fake funeral, but she soon regrets it as she struggles to keep her secret — her pregnancy and subsequent miscarriage — from her husband Mark.

Counting Telephone Poles

Jacob’s obsession with James Dean and Abraham Lincoln lead him to abandon his girlfriend, Chen, and embark on a suicidal road trip to Washington, DC, where he plans to drive a rented Porsche to a fiery, glorious death.

Kamikaze

When Neal learns the tragic story of his obnoxious friend Holly’s botched suicide attempt, Neal is scared Holly might try to kill himself again — and terrified that he will somehow be responsible.

Barefoot in the Guadalupe

Mark hides his lament for a dead girlfriend from his wife, Sharon, while avoiding his marriage through his new friendship with Tommy, until Tommy nearly dies as well and Mark knows no way to cope except to run.

One of the (many) things I’ve been working on lately is sending out my collection of closely linked short stories — or my novel-in-stories, if you want to think of it that way — and to do that, I’ve had to write probably my least favorite document: the query.

I dislike the query for two reasons. First, I am my own worst salesman. I don’t much care for bragging on myself, and I’m usually too close to my own work to know the difference between confidence and arrogance, between self-marketing and a big brass trumpet full of BS. I try to walk the line, but it isn’t easy. If I ever figure it out, I’ll post about it here.

The second reason I dislike queries is the necessity of the plot synopsis. This is an even less rational hang-up, I admit — I write plot synopses of other people’s work all the time, and presumably I ought to know my own work better than anyone else’s, so the synopsis ought to be a walk. But I have this flighty, self-indulgent protectionist attitude that if I could sum up my story in a few sentences, I would have just written a few sentences. In other words, I want the work to speak for itself, and whittling it down to a handful of plot points always feels to me like butchery, like I’m carving away all the joy and mystery and beauty of the thing and reducing what I had hoped was a piece of art to merely a commodity.

Which it is. I’m trying to sell this thing, after all!

So eventually I have to buckle down and reduce the stories (which is a word I like better when I think of it as a cooking term: “reducing” is the process through which a sauce grows not smaller or less interesting but thicker, denser, richer, and more flavorful), and that’s what I’ve been trying to do here.

There are all sorts of great tips for doing this, but the one I found most useful was the “beginning / middle / end” method. Because every story has all three of these elements, it’s relatively easy to state what each is in a sentence. And once that happens, you have a neat little three-sentence summary of your piece.

Another way to think of this process: You’re stating your main character and setting, the conflict, and the resolution — which also are (usually) present in every story.

Of course, this sort of reduction gets trickier with a dense little short story, and for a collection, even one as tightly interlaced as mine, it’s difficult to find a single conflict/resolution to describe. So I had to write a mini-synopsis for each story,and with so many of those in the collection, I then had to reduce each three-sentence paragraph to one or two sentences.

The goal when pitching a whole collection (I’ve learned) is to then further reduce all those mini-synopses to a single paragraph highlighting a few representative stories, which is what you actually see on the backs of story collections in the library or book store.

Take, for example, this book-jacket description from Debra Monroe’s beautiful collection A Wild, Cold State:

Set in rural Wisconsin, these interwoven tales run the gamut of moods and textures, ranging from the warmly nostalgic “The World’s Great Love Novels,” in which the young narrator observes the extreme compromises adults make in the name of love, to the hard-edged and gritty “Crossroads Cafe,” in which a waitress searches for tenderness, though nothing in her life so far suggests that tenderness is available.

Eventually, I wrote a similar paragraph for my whole collection, but as I said, it’s out on the market now and I don’t want to post too much while it’s under consideration. So I’ve included these early single-story synopses just for the exercise of it.

Got any other great tips for writing queries or synopsizing your own work? By all means, leave a comment — I’d love to learn more!


* A good tip for writers with personal blogs: The rules are changing as rapidly as the Internet, and there is a growing tolerance of work appearing on personal blogs. But personal blogs are also becoming more prevalent and more visible, meaning what once was some poem you scribbled in a digital version of your diary is now getting so many hits online it’s practically a self-publication, and many magazines and journals are viewing blog-posted creative work as self-published, and therefore previously published. And many simply won’t accept previously published work, even if it only appeared on your blog. I’ve posted sketches and short passages from my ongoing work here in the Notebook, but I’ve always been careful NOT to post whole pieces unless I don’t mind later sending them to reprint-friendly publications. And there are plenty of those to choose from if you still want to post your fiction or poetry online. Just be aware that you might have to declare such work “previously published” in the future.

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5 thoughts on “A Writer’s Notebook: query plot synopsis

  1. i dont envy writing a query for a collection. One story is hard enough. There’s this literary agency blog i find helpful: Bookends. They do query critiques every Wednesday. Anyone can subit their queries. They are picked randomly. It has been helpful, seeing exactly what agents are looking for. Also if you are on Twitter, and follow literary agents, they post what they are looking for and have contests all the time. I had my query critiqued when i won a twitter contest. It was brutal, but it helped me see exactly what agents are looking for. They also post what types of stories they are looking for at the moment, which makes it easier to see what agents are worth submitting to, and which you might be wasting time with. BTW on a completely unrelated note, did you read about that woman who put her book on Kindle for a dollar, ended up selling over 50,000 copies, and signed a high six figure deal with a major publishing group? Things really are changing. It’s hard to keep up.

    1. Thanks for the tips, Mickey!

      I did see that article about the self-pubbed woman, and I thought of you at the time. I can see you being successful with that, if you chose to go that route. 🙂

  2. I’ve never written a book query, but–as usual–I’ve got a music equivalent. In reviewing albums, especially in blurb form, there isn’t a lot of space (100-150 words), so you don’t really get a chance to do the typical “It starts with this song, which sounds like this, and then moves into this song, which sounds like this, etc” thing. It’s important to explain the themes without 1) listing them off (“love, relationships, and what it means to feel” = you’re a dickhead) or 2) sensationalizing them (prostitution, child abuse, and addiction can be mentioned in the blurb, as long as you don’t actually say prostitution, child abuse, or addiction). I would have been more inclined to randomly buy What We Talk Abut When We Talk About Love if it had just said on the back, “Everyone’s smoking cigarettes.” That and the title are honest enough.

    Then again, I don’t have any books out, and I’m certainly in no position to sell them. Art is business, too.

    1. Thanks, Ryan! I’m always glad when you chime in, and I love the ways you connect music to writing. When you do get a book out there — which is surely just around the corner — I’ll be glad to call myself a fan, man. 🙂

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