On the heels of yesterday’s post about description vs. specifics in a synopsis and/or query letter, I promised to show an example of both for comparison. Today’s example is DESCRIPTION…and akin to the type of synopsis I received last year – and something I still see quite a bit. Not just from authors, but agents.
To add a bit of reality to this synopsis below, I used an actual synop sent to me years ago and fluffed things around to protect the innocent.
HOLY COW, I HAVE HALITOSIS
I can’t believe my own reflection. I look okay, for a guy of twenty-seven…blond, blue eyes, just under six foot. But when I smile, holy crap. I look like I chiseled out Mt. Rushmore with my teeth. That’s what teeth grinding will get you. And my breath? Let’s just say that it melts my bathroom mirror. Nothing works, and I’ve tried them all. I’ve lost my job, my friends, my family, even my dog growls at me when I enter the room. What’s the point of going on?
I’m not a fan of starting a query letter or synopsis with actual text from the book. It means something to the author, but not to anyone else because it lacks context. It’s a throwaway, not a selling point.
Thus is the beginning of HOLY COW, I HAVE HALISTOSIS. The author, Max Mushmouth, is an Arizona-area dentist, minister, and part time ditch digger who grew up in a Southern working-class family that was afflicted with severe halitosis. In fact, halitosis pervaded Max’s formative years on every level.
This is an OK first paragraph. It intro’s the author, where he lives, his particular boggle, and how that boggle affected his life. At this point, I’m expecting specifics next…the WHAT, HOW, WHY.
Despite Max’s best efforts to break the circuitous heartbreak of halitosis that affected not only him, but his family members, Max found himself at the end bottom of the barrel—-alienated from his friends, unemployed, unloved, penniless, homeless and in the throes of halitosis so severe that it threatened to destroy his very life.
Unfortunately, this is description, scene setting. Not what I was expecting, but forgivable provided the next paragraphs lead directly into specifics.
HOLY COW, I HAVE HALISTOSIS begins as Max hits the skids.
Good lead in. However, as you’ll see in the next paragraph, this is a lost opportunity where the agent should have launched into the specifics of the author’s journey.
Then, in a blend of personal narrative, family history, and hard-hitting investigation, HOLY COW, I HAVE HALISTOSIS methodically weaves together all the strands of life, family, personal shortcomings, unfortunate genetics—and most of all, society’s fundamental misunderstanding of halitosis—which all combined into the near-lethal cataclysm that brought Max to his knees.
This is where the agent veers completely off course by offering up only the vaguest of descriptions. The first thing I’m asking is HOW and WHAT brought Max to his knees. Those are specifics. It doesn’t matter what techniques were used in organizing the book…who cares? I’ll figure that out when/if I read the pages. This is a throwaway, not a selling point. A lost opportunity to grab me.
Max combines his own personal narrative with labor intense investigation that exposes just how poor a job the American dental system does of caring for those afflicted with halitosis, and explodes the crippling, destructive social stigmas that still drive U.S. perception, professional and personal bias, and society at large to discriminate against and penalize those who are breath-challenged.
I see what the agent is trying to do here – provide the “gotta have it” element…that millions are afflicted and MUST read this book. I like this because it helps me decide whether this is blatant puffery or whether there really is a market who would buy this book. The problem is that she hasn’t provided any specifics, so I can’t appreciate the quality, or lack thereof, of the US dental system, or the viability of this book because I still have no clue what it’s about. It’s all just buzz words that sound really cool, but provides no backup. This is a throwaway, not a selling point. A lost opportunity to grab me.
Via a dynamic mixture of poignant and emotional flashbacks, professional and social analysis, and investigative journalism, Max Mushmouth uses his experience as both a survivor of halitosis and a dental-healthcare critic to evaluate family dental health and dental healthcare in the United States. This powerful, passionate memoir will offer education and hope to the millions of American families who suffer the oppressive weight of halitosis.
And this is where I blow out the candle and put the cat outside (if I had a cat, that is). This is an epic failure because the agent blew an entire page on nothing but description. I’m no clearer to understanding what this book is about than when I first opened up the file. If I was truly interested, I would have to write the agent back and ask them to please tell me with what this book is about. The specifics.
The author, this agent’s client, will never know of the lost opportunity, and I fear it will be hard to sell this book. Would you be surprised to know that this kind of descriptive query from agents is far from unique? I’ve seen HUGE agents send queries that were bantha fodder, and I always secretly wonder if they believe they sell works based simply on their own fabulosity. If so, no one sent me the memo.
Of course, most agents are lovely, and I adore them with all my heart because they take their jobs seriously and want the best for everyone – and take the necessary steps to make our little editor mouths water. It’s a good idea to ask your agent to see the query letter/synopsis they’re sending out. After all, you’ve worked this out together, so you should feel confident that what’s going out is the very best.
The synop above is what not to do. Tomorrow, I’ll show a synopsis that I thought was so coolio that I signed the author – to the utter joy of a very delightful agent – after one of the briefest turnarounds in Behler history.