Earlier this summer I pitched my (unfinished) novel to Baen Books‘ Contributing Editor Gray Rinehart at a face-to-face critique session at LibertyCon, a three-day sci-fi and fantasy literature convention in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Unusually for a modern publisher, Baen takes unsolicited manuscripts. Gray is the Slushmaster General – a job, he said, akin to visiting a store and browsing the beginning and back blurb of hundreds of unfamiliar books, to decide which to buy.
Baen is a respected American sci-fi and fantasy publishing house, an early eBook pioneer famous for its focus on plot-driven fiction. Well-known titles include David Weber’s Honor Harrington series and the Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold. Many Baen authors attend LibertyCon, where about twenty aspiring novelists had their synopses and first page critiqued by Gray.
Here’s what he said:
Tips for a killer synopsis
- Gray is a writer as well as an editor, and wants to treat your manuscript as he would like his to be treated. If he likes the synopsis, but doesn’t enjoy Chapter One, he’ll read Chapters Two and Three to see if the text matches the story. Likewise, he’d prefer your protagonist appear in Chapter One, but – if they don’t – he’ll check Chapter Two;
- Your synopsis doesn’t need a chapter by chapter outline though. A big novel might feature several point-of-views (POVs) so subplots and minor characters (e.g. a comic relief character) shouldn’t be in the synopsis;
- That said, you need to tell the story in the synopsis, rather than giving backstory. He needs to know that Event A leads to Event B leads to Event C;
- If your character is a criminal (or similar), get that into the synopsis early. Any unfamiliar idea that you introduce in the synopsis needs to be explained. Also, be specific. Don’t write your hero ‘joined forces to escape the enemy’ – he needs more detail. Who did they join forces with? Who is the enemy?
- Finally, he likes stories about good guys (or gals). Heroes, in other words!!!!!
For more ideas for how to write a one-page synopsis, try this simple guide (my suggestion, the website I used to write my LibertyCon synopsis, and the best I’ve found).
How NOT to open a novel
- Don’t start with the reader watching someone, watching someone else – it’s not interesting. Your character should be taking action, even if that’s as simple as going on a picnic;
- Don’t bury interesting facts. Show in the first part of your opening that your protagonist has a special ability, e.g. detecting magical auras, rather than waiting a few paragraphs in;
- Don’t open with lots of technical language – pepper the story later on. Use with care words like ‘cerulean’ (that’s blue). On a similarly pedantic note, don’t tell the reader what the character already knows, in dialogue. The Turkey City Lexicon calls this “as you know, Bob…” Avoid writing “you are severely wounded” – it’s too formal. Someone would say, “you’re hurt!” In general, a smattering of slang, contractions and ellipses can stop dialogue looking the same;
- Finally, don’t open with blatant sexism. You lose a portion of your potential audience right there.
How to open a novel
- Gray enjoys sensory details, such as sight and sound, and a lively narrative voice. Humour and sassiness is good;
- He prefers to stay in the present. A flashback is not part of the present action. If your character is starving and bleeding out on page one, any flashback needs to be REALLY INTERESTING;
- You need to describe action first and not physical description (e.g. someone wearing a red belt). Also, if you’re describing your protagonist, the red belt isn’t in their POV – they’re being described from the outside;
- Finally, story trumps all. Rules can be broken if you keep people engrossed. For example, it’s fine to switch POV mid-scene, provided your story is well-written enough. If you’re deep within a POV and need the reader to know something, the narrator can always take some time to make note of that thing at the end of the scene.
And some finicky technical points
- Gray has seen novel submissions on lined paper torn from a spiral-bound notebook. He prefers manuscripts typed in 12-point courier in standard manuscript format, numbered pages, with 250 words a page on each page. He’ll read without, unlike other publishers, but he prefers that;
- On the title page, he needs the author’s name and address, an approximate word length, and a title. If you haven’t thought of a title, a working title is better than ‘untitled’.
- Also, he doesn’t like double-sided synopses.
This picture was drawn by Chattanooga artist James Ward who had a stall at LibertyCon. He gave me the drawing as a gift as it was my first time in Tennessee (in the American south at all, in fact).