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Ranty rant

Grumbly publishing rumblings.

I have two full manuscripts on the back burner. They’re both worthy of readership, and I’ve long hoped to submit them to any number of small presses. Everywhere I turn, those pubs only allow submission of a short synopsis plus some chapters, regardless of manuscript status.

So…those manuscripts will just keep languishing.

I won’t be coughing up a 3-page plot summary like a cat retches up a hairball for anyone soon. This isn’t a matter of can’t. I can condense fiction works fairly well, when I choose exert the effort required. Nope, I’m opting out of a ridiculous, pointless exercise because I loathe time-wasting counter-productive bullshit.

Hey, if someone said flat-out, “We will accept your book if you will please send us a summary for our files,” I’d jump all over it. (It’s as realistic as expecting a prince to come along with perfectly-sized silicon-based footwear.  So I will continue to edit my own work, commission art, pay for editing, format and market it all myself rather than participate in a fundamentally obscene system.

Writing a good summary is an art. I don’t dispute that. I dispute its universal, unexamined use as a replacement for manuscripts in the submission process.  I refuse to buy into the fatally-flawed idea that a synopsis of this type is a meaningful substitute.

Even the use of the word itself in this case peeves me. A proper synopsis is a scene-by-scene breakdown. A 1-3 page sketch of the basic ideas, themes, and plot framework is a treatment. A 1-3 page summary is a…well, a summary. I will happily write a pitch description (a few paragraphs, maybe a page.)  I can produce a proper synopsis. But stripping the plot of  a 100k novel to a few pages is like pulling one melodic line from a symphonic score and playing it on a saxophone. Just as you can make a trailer from a film that turns it into any kind of movie, so does a summary of that length render the complexity of a novel meaningless.

It has a purpose in bare-bones identification of the final product,  in a publisher catalogue for example, or as a legal description. But as a tool by which to judge the writing? Might as well transcribe Beethoven’s 9th for a penny whistle and evaluate that symphony’s worth by the results.

That’s the dirty little secret no one else seems willing to shout: a short synopsis is worse than a lousy measure of writing. It’s an active misrepresentation. It’s a lie.  And I hate lying. (Yah, yah, I know, fiction writer. Laugh away.)

The usual excuse for requiring a synopsis is that agents and acquisition editors need a fast way to reject the maximum number submissions in minimum time.  I agree. I’ve read slush pile material. A synopsis serves as well as any other sample for judging the writer’s  mastery of speeeling, THE OF ALLCAPS and, standard use-making of grammer & punctuation!

But that’s my point. A query letter and a glance at a manuscript would reveal the same fatal writing flaws as a synopsis would. So pubs do not need a synopsis-plus-chapters to evaluate basic wordcraft when a full manuscript already exists.  They each serve that purpose equally well.

What about the argument that a short summary shows whether the author can keep the plot together, while not making the editor/agent read the whole thing?  Nope. I call bullshit and point back to the symphony analogy. The synopsis doesn’t prove a damned thing about the novel’s feel, twists, etc. Besides, if the editor is curious about plot after a teaser, it shows the manuscript regardless of later flaws or gems.

And  the other secondary argument that writers should be able to write a good synopsis because it’s a professional skill?  More bullshit, this time of the “sabertooth hunting is necessary” variety. My experiences in human resources taught me that hiring people who seem great in the interview gets you employees who have great interviewing skills. That doesn’t mean they have the skills for the position you hire them to fill. Far from it. The same goes for the synopsis. A good summary writer–even a good first-chapter hook writer–is by no means necessarily a writer of a great novel. Far. From. It.

Why then  do so many of publishers only allow submission of  monstrous lies synopsis+chapters and refuse manuscripts entirely?  Here I have to stray into speculation, but I think there are two reasons and an excuse.  1) to encourage submission of ideas rather than finished work and 2) pure tradition. And then the excuse of legal fears.

There is one excellent justification for a treatment and several chapters: the book is still in development. That can be a great thing —a publisher/agent is willing to accept incomplete book and shepherd it through the process from outline onward? That’s fabulous. But it doesn’t justify only accepting synopsis+a few chapters submissions instead of manuscripts.  Only tradition accounts for that.

I truly believe “send us your synopsis” is becoming a small press standard because that’s how the big boys do it, and I cannot think of a worse reason to adopt such an inherently-flawed tool of measurement. It’s the root of my rant and my stubborn insistence on face-spiting. Tradition alone is a lousy reason to do anything.

The 1-3 page synopsis did serve a useful purpose once. In the era when mailing full manuscripts was a prohibitively expensive proposition and a space-consuming storage issue, synopses were a boon to both sides. Writers could submit for the cost of a stamp, and publishers didn’t suffocate under paper mountains of dreck.  They were a convenience in the same way resumes and job applications are useful: as an means to cull the herd.

That era is over. Electronic submission means a full manuscript takes up little more storage space and requires no more time to judge and delete than a smaller file. The synopsis is now a meaningless additional hoop to jump simply to reach a professional audience. It’s a pointless gate into an industry already overrun with obstacles.

There’s a use for summary reviews by and for prospective buyers of a finished book.  There’s a place and a time for pitches and query letters and a sample. But there is also ample justification for accepting manuscripts as well as/instead of a synopsis.

Except for that legal excuse…but no. A publisher or agent who doesn’t want full manuscripts because they might be accused of stealing the idea, filing off the serial numbers and rewriting it?

Sure, it happens. And people win the Megamillions lottery too. It’s about equally likely. And really someone might sue a publisher for stealing the plot synopsis too. (Far more likely really, since a synopsis can be bent and twisted all kinds of ways.)

So not accepting mss because there’s too much lawsuit exposure is like not driving because there might be an accident somewhere. Sometime. As an argument, it too fails.

Synopsis-only submission policies fail to meet every justified-hassle test I can think of. The old final trump card, “but you can’t ever get published unless you play the game,” is no longer in play.

 

I can let my work be judged on its own shiny merits (or its stinky, putrid ones) by the general public.  I’m willing to sell my ideas in a query letter or bypass the submission process and sell the story itself,  but  I will not crush it into a faux shell of a summary because “that’s how it’s done.” I will let my works fail on strength of their own openings.

It’s a cold, empty bed, because let’s face it, self-publication in the SFF genre is not a way to reach readers. But I’m willing to lie in it because the alternative is a bed of nails.

I don’t lie here happily on luxury sheets. Happiness would be finding places I could send a manuscript to be rejected. Alas, everywhere I turn I see the publisher equivalent of this: “Do not send your symphony. We don’t want to judge your music as is. We will only judge it by the way it sounds on penny whistle.”

Until that changes,  I’ll toss and turn on my cranky bed, and I’ll play my little symphonies to the tiny audience who finds them.

By K. M. Herkes

Author, gardener, and cat wrangler.