Friday, July 07, 2006

Cutting it Short

“Let me have a synopsis of your work,” says the letter from your agent or publisher, cheerily. Clearly they have no idea of the difficulty of expressing the magical quality of your 90,000 word masterpiece in a few, short cryptic sentences. How can you convey the subtle nuances that you have incorporated, the sly touches of humour, the overall depth of wisdom so wonderfully expressed?

Of course you can’t. And the synopsis, or precis as we used to call it at school, has given more authors ulcers than any other facet of this business – it’s not an art that’s practised much nowadays.

The early Assyrians were probably dab hands at the game. After all, knocking out an imperial decree on a couple of broken paving stones must have taught economy of words and the inadvisability of making an error. The Egyptians were a bit more verbose, often covering walls with idle chit chat.

In these days, only the senders of text messages on their cell phones are constant practitioners of the art – if that’s what you call an inability to spell properly and find the shift key. Often the results are as incomprehensible to me as if they had written in Swahili (no offence to any Swahilians reading this – I’m sure it’s a delightful language in its way) and it seems to require the sort of manual dexterity that I lack.

But back to your agent’s request. I wonder if we don’t agonise too much over this. I always ask potential clients for a synopsis but am not looking for a literary masterpiece. All I need is a clue to see if the completed work will meet my requirements as a subject and that it is one that I feel I can handle. In the case of your agent or publisher, they’re going to need the first two or three chapters to check on your style of writing and the synopsis only needs to map out the rest of the work for them.

So it’s best to keep it strictly to the plot and avoid the flowery phrases. But make sure you can spell and that you know where the shift key is!


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