Lessons from the Trenches: What I Learned from Reading 90 Submissions

Within a relatively short period of time, I was charged with reading the synopsis and first ten pages of almost 90 adult novel manuscripts. That’s a whole lot of different plots, characters, perspectives, and narrative styles. It was a daunting task, but I emerged with a better understanding of what works, and what doesn’t work in submissions to editors, agents, and writing contests. Before my observations slip into distant memory, I’d like to share some of the problems I identified.

Let’s face it, writing is HARD! Writing a good synopsis is a pain. A headache. A necessity! It might just be the most important part of any submission. After reading almost 90 of these puppies, I have a new appreciation for the importance of clarity in synopses. (Yes, that is the plural of synopsis). Some of what I read was truly stellar, and I’m sure they’ll land with the right editor soon. Unfortunately, in many other cases, I was left scratching my head, wondering “but what is the story?” or “who is the main character?” or “what does that have to do with…?” Unlike the one-line summary, or elevator pitch, or the teasing query to an editor or agent, your synopsis should give a complete, but condensed picture of the entire story. In one or two pages, your synopsis needs to reveal the main character(s) and their motivations and problem, the most important plot points, the climax, the emotional change in the character, and the resolution. This isn’t the place for a tease, or wide-sweeping generalizations.

In no particular order, here are some problems identified in almost 90 synopses:

  1. Using the synopsis to give the history of the setting, or the backstory of the characters, thereby ignoring the character and plot at hand.
  2. Failing to clearly identify the main protagonist(s). The synopsis reader needs to know who the point-of-view character(s) is, so that we know whose story it is.
  3. Not indicating the emotional trajectory of the character through the plot line. Remember, there is an active plot, and an emotional plot.
  4. Including too many secondary characters in the synopsis. They clutter your summary. Stick with only the characters that drive the primary plot.
  5. Presenting a childhood-to-death storyline. *Yes, it has been done in adult literature, but it can easily feel like a biography rather than a novel, if not crafted well. Always consider the narrative arc.
  6. Related to #4: Beware the multi-generational storyline: beginning with one pov character until his/her death, then switching to his/her child’s or grandchild’s pov. I ran across several of these. It is especially challenging when a first person pov character dies.
  7. Related to #5: When planning multiple pov characters, it should be clear in the synopsis. And the intersecting plot points need to be clear, too.
  8. Stating that the character must reach his/her goal, but not stating how. We need those big plot points.
  9. Leaving out the resolution. The agent, editor, or contest judge reading your entry needs to know upfront, how the story ends, and how your character changes. By the resolution, we need to identify the story’s theme(s).
  10. Writing a synopsis that does not match the manuscript pages submitted. If the characters introduced in the synopsis, do not appear in your first chapter, it might indicate that the story isn’t focused enough, or that you begin the story too far from the main character and the inciting incident.
  11. Confusing a synopsis with a query.

In no particular order, here are some problems identified in the first ten pages of almost 90 submissions:

  1. Beginning the story too soon. In other words, too far from the day the main character’s world changes. Your early pages need to hook the reader.
  2. Beginning the story with an info dump, or back story, rather than with character.
  3. Info dumps, in general, because they disrupt the flow of the story. It is better to reveal backstory as the reader needs it.
  4. Beginning with secondary characters. *Especially problematic when these characters aren’t important enough to be introduced in the synopsis.
  5. Relying too much on foreshadowing to create tension. Sometimes, this can indicate too much narrative/psychic distance. Keep your reader in the moment. Build tension organically.
  6. Using passive language, rather than active language. Zero in on to-be verbs, and adverbs.
  7. Using language that is either too flat and dry, or too flowery and overdone.
  8. Not allowing characters to have distinct voices in dialogue and/or internal monologue.
  9. Not developing character. If you can’t begin the story on the day something changes for your pov character, at least develop him/her enough to allow the reader a glimpse into his/her wants, desires, and fears that feed into the emotional journey to come. We should glimpse the theme early on.
  10. Having a narrator that sneaks in with random opinions, or direct address to the character, the reader, or both, unless there is a logical reason for this. Narrators who are characters require some development. Above all, be consistent.
  11. Inconsistent character names. Beware sudden switches to nicknames.
  12. Changing tense, or pov.
  13. Mis-spelled words, grammatical errors, punctuation errors. I never realized how distracting this can be.
  14. First ten pages that don’t reflect what is revealed in the synopsis.
  15. Including a Chekhov’s gun element. Beware focusing on an object/prop without giving relevance to it.
  16. Plopping new characters into a scene, without identifying them beyond name. And, yes, sometimes we need to have stage direction to avoid the “where’d he come from?”
  17. Missing dialogue tags, when multiple characters are speaking.
  18. Too much psychic distance. If the lens is too far away, it’s difficult for the reader to be emotional invested, unless the language is compelling enough.
  19. Having a first person narrator that is not identified, not an active part of the story, and not developed as a character.

Putting together a submission packet is a nerve-racking challenge. It is easy to either overwrite or underwrite. My best advice is to have a trusted writing friend read through your synopsis and manuscript pages to identify any holes in logic, missing information, and extraneous details. And, give yourself time to put the submission in a drawer for a week or two before you go back to it with fresh eyes. Distance yourself enough so that you can read a bit more objectively. Ask yourself if your synopsis summarizes the entire book, and if your first ten pages adequately hook your reader into wanting to read more. Remember, you have one chance to make a positive first impression.

Happy writing!