My “Useless” Skill

I think Mike’s description of the beast of marketing’s awakening was spot on. Which is why I took my little beastie to its usual haunts on the Internet this morning, and fed it a carb-heavy snack of tweets and status updates. While it naps, I’ll take part in an Emudebut tradition–using my first post to share that magical moment when chasing the dream became catching it.

Like many writers, it took multiple years and manuscripts, as well as a plethora of supporting documents, the most cumbersome of which was the synopsis. But since synopses were necessary for writing classes, grants and contests, as well as agent-seeking, I wrote them, grudgingly. To my surprise, by the third manuscript, people began mentioning how much they liked my synopses. Really? Those useless, ol’ things? Okay, it was better than hearing folks hated them, but hardly cartwheel-worthy.

Once I landed an agent, hah! No more query letters; no more synopses! For my fifth manuscript, I constructed beat sheets, outlines, story grids, all that groovy, writerly stuff. And on a blue-skied day in March 2011, I finally got that knee-weakening, eye-watering, fist-pumping, oh-my-God CALL! Someone wanted to publish my book!

And then a funny thing happened.

A second publisher was very interested, but wanted to talk about some possible revisions. I agreed to speak with the editor. He described what drew him to my manuscript, and then he laid out the areas where it could be improved. Oh. It was one of those times where you instinctually know that what you’re hearing is right on the mark. At the same time, I calculated that addressing the issues would mean tossing out, let’s see, half the manuscript. Ack. Before I could faint or hyperventilate, we shifted into brainstorming mode. By the end of the call, I saw what the second publisher saw—a bigger, better version of my story. And, even though I could’ve gone with publisher number one (whose books I love) and saved myself a ton of work, you can’t unsee a vision once you’ve glimpsed it. You just can’t. I hung up eager to get to work.

Of course, imagining a substantially new plot is a far cry from writing it. In order to make the case for the powers that be to acquire my book, I had to prove that I understood their concerns and could address them. Because of the offer already on the table, there wasn’t time for a revise and resubmit. The only thing hanging between me and this second possibility, the one with that sparkly new plotline, was–you guessed it, a synopsis. At first I panicked, but then I remembered. This was something I could do. My useless skill would finally have its day.

Burning the midnight oil for a few nights, I replotted my story and produced a synopsis. Not long after, I had an offer. Not just any offer. An offer from a publisher who’d push me to make my book so much better than I’d imagined.

Contrary to popular belief, this guy has nothing to do with synopsis-writing.

So when writers lament over synopsis writing, invariably using words such as “dreaded,” “daunting” and “evil,” I get it. Yes, synopses are difficult to write. There’s a reason for that. In roughly five pages, you have to hook your reader with the seduction of a query letter, make your main character’s voice compelling enough to care about, and present a cohesive plot with twists, turns and a satisfying ending. It’s the hardest type of writing we’ll probably face–the butterfly stroke in our swim medley, the decathlon in our track events, the a cappella in our repertoire.

But it’s also incredibly useful. Not just for getting the deal. But as a communication tool for agents and editors to share with sales staff, subrights folks, movie agents, etc… Who knew these little suckers could carry so much weight?

Well, now I do. I doubt I’ll ever find them easy, but they’re doable. And clearly, worthwhile. Which is a far cry from evil and useless.



Filed under craft~writing, Publishers and Editors, Satisfaction, Synopsis, Writing

32 responses to “My “Useless” Skill

  1. Great post! I’d love to see that winning syopsis. Better yet, consider doing a synopsis workshop for your local SCBWI!


  2. It is inspiring to me that you had two agents interested in your work and, rather than follow the path of least resistance, you chose the one who you felt elevated your work. As for your useless skill, guess it wasn’t so useless after all!


  3. As I have been struggling (again) with a synopsis for a novel I have rewritten so many times I can’t even count them anymore, this post comes at just the right time. I’d love the hear more of your pointers for writing a good one! I admire your courage in going with the right choice rather than the easy one and look forward to hearing more of your journey.


  4. JRo

    Jeanne – this is such a great post. Synopses are so difficult and to be decent at them is for from useless. Bravo. And I can’t wait for Nerve’s release.


  5. Brava! What a great read this is! I, too, admire your attitude and I can’t wait to read your book! I love your writing!


  6. Mike Jung

    Two things. 1. “Useless skill”? I THINK NOT. It’s becoming clear that synopsis-writing will only get MORE important from here on. “Phenomenal badass writer” skill is more like it. 2. You passed on an offer of publication to work with an editor whose vision would force you to work harder and take your book from good to great? You are my flipping HERO. I’m gonna strive to practice the same kind of artistic bravery that you did, it’s truly inspirational!


  7. Jeanne, this is such a great and motivating post! I am bookmarking it for when I get to that point…where I have to *gulp* start writing a synopsis… 🙂


  8. Oooh, I so know who I’m going to bug the next time I’m attempting to put together a synopsis 🙂

    Good to hear a bit more of your book’s story, too!


  9. Jeanne, I’m so glad you’ve joined EMUs! You have so much to add. No one’s written, as far as I can remember, about offers for proposals of fictional works or on the importance of synopses. Well don!


    • And I’m honored to be joining a group that’s provided so much inspiration and a map for navigating the waters from deal to debut. As we sail forth toward sophomore books and beyond, I imagine all of us will be seeing proposals in our sleep.


  10. Gwendolyn McIntyre

    Reblogged this on Pages for Small Wages and commented:
    As debut author Jeanne Ryan has discovered, Sometimes a Synopsis… can do more than simply open a door. It can change ‘your world’ for the better.


    • Gwendolyn McIntyre

      Thanks Jeanne. I’ve been trying to get across the importance of a good synopsis to people for years. And you did it in only a couple of paragraphs…



  11. This is encouraging, Jeanne! Sometimes writing the 1-paragraph synopsis does feel more intimidating than writing the book. But how neat that you decided not to “unsee” the vision–and to go for a better version of your book, even though it meant a lot of work in the process. Congratulations! I’m excited for your book to come out!


  12. Fantastic. This is the real artistic dedication at work.


  13. jam93044

    This is a wonderfully written, entertaining, and useful post! Thanks!


  14. What a great post. I love that you didn’t take the easy route. You certainly could have. Especially memorable: “You can’t unsee a vision once you’ve glimpsed it.” May we all experience such vision 😉


  15. I once thought that having an agent meant that I’d never have to write a synopsis again. Silly me! I’m attending a retreat that requires fifteen pages and a one-page synopsis.


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