[Greatest Hits] On Writing #8: Drafting Cover Letter Blurbs and Synopses, Or How to Realize You Can’t Really Write

Ever wondered why writers complain endlessly about writing that novel blurb on the cover letter, or writing the synopsis that every agent says are standard for the industry, but every agent also says must be a different length? (C’mon guys! Are they supposed to be 1 or 2 or 3 or 5 or 8 or 10 pages, anyway?)

Well, since I’ve been diving head-first into both of these problems — and I think I’ve recently whipped the Cover Letter Problem(TM) — I’ll tell you. It’s not that you don’t know how to write anymore. It’s not even that your novel is too complicated to compress into a blurb/XY-page synopsis.

The real problem is that you are practicing a new skill, one you may not have used very much:

The skill of summarizing.

You may have last encountered this in 10th grade as an English assignment — summarizing (perhaps) MOBY DICK or TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. I bet it wasn’t easy, was it? All the class snickering. Half of them copying off of each other. None of you even partly interested in the assignment. If you are very lucky you may have even had to summarize a book more recently, say in English 101 or History of English Literature. You probably tried harder then, banging your skull against the dogeared copy of ABSALOM ABSALOM or TAMBURLANE until Athena tried to climb out of your forehead. You may have even got an A.

But one day you start writing a novel and thinking about selling it or getting an agent, and you sense this “Cover Letter” demon and “Synopsis” monster lurking in the dark and unknown future, and you wonder, “How do I tame them? How do they not just eat me? Where do I even start?” But you’ve still got a long road ahead, so you put it off.

Then one day the novel is done. You’ve patched all the plot holes, polished the prose, charisma’ed-up the characters, eliminated the loose ends. “Well,” you decide, “I can’t wait any longer — I have to have a cover letter and a synopsis.” So you dive in. First things first, start at the BEGINNING. And when you come up for air, you read the thing and you’re pretty damn sure IT SUCKS.

What’s going on, anyway? You know how to write. Everyone’s impressed with the novel (or at least they’re pretending to be.) Maybe you’ve even sold a couple of short stories by now, possibly been nominated or even won an award. But still You. Can’t. Get. This. Damned. Thing. To. Work.

Yeah, I couldn’t either.

But then I realized: my novel, with its unusual setting, four different factions, and shifting alliances (eventually culminating in one glorious conflagration where everyone tries to kill everyone else) — well, it just doesn’t fit the coverletter format. Or the synopsis format, either. At least… not the way I’m using them.

You see, I was lost in the detail. I was trying to recreate by intercut book, in order, sometimes scene by scene. But these formats don’t easily support that sort of summarization.

I realized at last that I only have to convey the spirit of the story, not every twist and turn of the plot. To summarize, indeed, I was forced SIMPLIFY the plot.

The only way to condense this book, make it fit into the space needed, and still be entertaining was to cut out seemingly-pivotal characters, entire story arcs, perhaps even important factions. Cut, cut, cut away the fat until only the skeleton remains.

The cover letter was finished first, a couple of days ago. And when I read it, it feels pretty damn good — and I’ve never been able to say that about a cover letter before. As for the synopsis, I’m still hack-hack-hacking away.

But at least I think I know what shape the corpse should be before I pour the lightning in… Here, hold a tendon.

[Update since the original post: The synopsis feels pretty darn good when I read it, too. It’s alive… IT’S ALIVE! *mad laughter*]

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