Thursday, 14 January 2010

Short and pithy

My new book proposal is off to the acquisition meeting at Bloomsbury today. As usual I have produced a synopsis and a couple of chapters. I've shared them with my agent, Philippa, who made a couple of excellent suggestions for changes. Philippa also supplied a lot of enthusiasm, which at this stage is vital.

I understand the need for a synopsis. And not just because editors need something tangible to take to acquisitions meetings. I've had a couple of ideas that have died at this stage as I realised that I could not actually make the story work, or if I could, that it was turning into a book I did not want to write. But I still don't like doing them.

I try to make them as short (and hopefully pithy) as I can: one side of A4 is my goal and it would never be more than two. I once listened to a radio programme about a museum of writers' manuscripts. There was an outline from Henry James for one of his novels that was in itself the length of a novella. And what's more it was rejected.

A synopsis is a wire framework. It gives an idea of the shape and the size and subject, but does not cut off avenues for development as the book progresses. You have to stay engaged as a writer. You need to surprise yourself from time to time. Or at least I do.

Having said that, a good synopsis will also act a little like the blurb on the back of a book (although it should never be just that). It needs to help the editor excite interest in the marketing and publicity people. Every good book has it's own USP, whether or not you chose to think in those commercial terms. The synopsis needs to nail it.

It also needs, ideally, to carry a flavour of the book with it. Tony Ross, who taught me illustration, told me once that you should always try and do roughs that give a clear idea of how you would do the finished piece. It is obvious that they need to show what you intend to draw, but less obvious perhaps that doing a feathery pencil rough, when you actually intend to deliver a stark lino cut is a bit confusing.

It was good advice for illustration, and it makes sense for writers too.

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