A sweet little secret of the Lit Biz—which I am about to let you in on, Dear Reader—is this:
After giving months, or maybe years, of your life to writing an 80,000-word novel, you must then tell the story again, accurately and with zing!, in one page.
That’s only if you want anyone to have a chance to read it.
“What, one page?” I hear you cry. “Dear New Favorite Writer, that’s hardly possible.”
You’re quite right. It’s flat-out IMpossible. Nevertheless, it’s mandatory.
The situation is not quite as bad as it seems. You can single space.
Why Is this Trip Necessary?
Agents, editors, and publishers want to see a one-page synopsis to decide whether there is any point in reading your whole manuscript. An agent or independent publisher receives a thousand or more queries a year—a query being a proffer of a new fiction manuscript the author hopes will get the green light for a traditional publishing contract.
The agent or publisher can represent, or publish, only a handful of titles a year. A dozen, or two dozen, perhaps. So barriers are built, like the steep waterfalls and boiling fish-ladders of the Pacific Northwest that keep all but the strongest of salmon from reaching their spawning grounds and scoring the Darwinian reward of posterity.
The synopsis is one of those barriers. Does it tell the whole story? Does it tell the story clearly? Is the story interesting? If not, fuhgeddaboudit.
Unlike the marketing blurb on the back cover of the book, which will give enticing hints of the story while gingerly avoiding spoilers, the synopsis—meant for publishing industry eyes only— must reveal the whole plot, including the ending. If it does the job well enough, the author’s reward is a request from the agent or publisher to send the full manuscript for review.
Thus, you have made it over the first waterfall on your way upstream. The next waterfall is steeper. After they read the whole manuscript, they may pass. But at least your synopsis has earned you a chance at success.
Which brings us back to the impossibility of writing your whole novel in one page. But trying to do so is actually a valuable exercise. An amazing number of characters, phrases, and plot twists must be left on the cutting room floor. What remain are only the real essentials, connected causally in whole different way from what the meandering course of the book itself required.
Now, Gentle Reader, I’m going to do something that’s almost never done. I’m going to give you a peek at the one-page synopsis of my new middle-grade novel about a boy named Izzy Mahler. You will see it before any agent or publisher sees it.
WARNING: If you hope to read the book after it is published, if your memory for plot details is good, and if you can’t stand reading a story when you know what’s going to happen, AVERT YOUR EYES NOW.
For those who remain, here is the synopsis, preceded by a one-sentence logline.
In 1957 Illinois, class runt Izzy Mahler just wants to become a regular kid as the world falls apart around him—but can he shield America from Sputnik, and will a secret gold mine save his struggling family?
It’s 1957. IZZY MAHLER, 12, youngest and smallest of eighth-graders in Plumb, Illinois, longs to be respected as a regular kid, not battered by bullies like LYLE HAYCOCK,13. Izzy and fellow Space Patrol afficionado COLLUM GUNDERSON, 14, find a shiny gold rock in the woods near their homes on Wry Lane. Collum swears Izzy to secrecy, because the discovery is their special thing, which Collum’s three half-brothers must not share. Emerging from the woods, they meet IRMA RUGER, 12—Izzy’s third-grade flame. Izzy keeps mum, the gold rock safe in his pocket. But the secrecy irks Izzy. If the gold is real, it could save his parents’ marriage, which is foundering over money. He visits the public library to learn about gold, but all he garners is a couple of cool space travel books. On his way home from the library, he inadvertently goads the MORIARTY BROTHERS into a baseball game: Court Street versus Wry Lane, to be played in two weeks. Izzy recruits players for the Wry Lane team, filling out the roster with physically impaired and oddly-named MUTT-MUTT CORNER.
Izzy’s underemployed DAD, a war veteran with a science degree, goes into a part-time upholstery business with PATCH PAGELKOPF, a wise old jack-of-all-trades. Izzy interrogates a pawnbroker and learns that even a little gold is worth a lot of money. But he prays Dad’s extra cash from the upholstery sideline, on top of his night-shift job at a glass bottle factory will be enough to keep the family together, so Izzy can keep the gold secret. Time comes for the Big Game: Lyle Haycock, playing for Court Street, shoves and harries Izzy mercilessly. The fey Mutt-mutt Corner makes an oddball play to win the game for Wry Lane, closing out Izzy’s summer on a high note. In the fall, heart-stopping Irma Ruger is once more a schoolmate, adding spice to life. Things are going swell!
But the glass factory lays off the midnight shift. As Izzy’s family reels from Dad’s job loss, the Russians launch SPUTNIK, the first man-made satellite—which Izzy, furious, takes as a personal insult. Now suddenly, America wants young scientists. Izzy can easily see himself as a space opera hero. He and Collum, advancing America’s space program, launch a skyrocket over the local brickyard, but a night watchman calls the cops and the boys must flee through the woods. With his parents’ marriage on the rocks again, Dad vanishes. Izzy wonders whether he’ll come back. At a science expo for young students, Izzy learns that Irma has a brighter future in science than he. MOM tries to explain to Izzy that Dad was damaged by combat, but try as he might, Izzy cannot picture Dad as a war hero.
Dad comes home. He’s been up North and landed a new job that will make use of his science degree. Seems Dad’s wedding ring is all the gold the family needs. But Mom, Izzy, and kid sister CHRISTINE must move to Pikeport, Wisconsin—Dad’s new work site, after Christmas. Izzy is devastated. Just when he is fitting into kid society in Plumb, he gets yanked away. Walking home from the town’s Christmas pageant, Izzy ponders his improved status as a kid among kids. Lyle Haycock waylays him and starts a fight, which becomes a conversation—one in which Izzy learns the facts of life in a truly broken family. Only Dad’s new job up North can spare Izzy from sharing Lyle’s crummy fate. After Christmas, the Mahlers move to Pikeport. On their way out of town, Izzy gives his new baseball glove to Mutt-mutt Corner, wishing him a good 1958 season. Up North, Pikeport is a hard place to adjust to, but Izzy finds a couple of new friends. His morale improves when America finally manages a successful launch of its own satellite in January 1958.
There you have it, Dear Reader—my latest book, soon to join the crowd of manuscripts battering their way upstream in the world of publishing.
When it comes out in paperback, do yourself a favor and read it. Especially because of all the ’50s reminiscences included, it’s a fun book for grown-ups as well as kids.
Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer