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First-Time Authors, Be At Peace -- Taming 'The Dreaded Synopsis'

12/20/2010 03:25 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Pamela Glasner Published author, historian, filmmaker and social advocate

After stringing together 170,000 words, formatting them into a coherent document and then watching in awe as my publisher transformed that document into what eventually became my very first novel, I found myself in the unenviable position of having to compose -- oh no!!! -- the dreaded synopsis!

Of course, I'm no expert -- I can only speak from my own point of view and my own experiences -- but I think I'd be willing to bet if you ask any author what it was like when they had to write their first one, the reactions you'd get would all be pretty similar: something akin to a shudder, perhaps accompanied by a slightly shaky smile of relief, maybe even a "thank God that's over with!"

Well, I think I've figured it out -- at least, I figured out what worked for me -- so I thought I'd share it.

After struggling with it for what felt like ages (it took me five months to write Finding Emmaus and then two months to not write my synopsis!), it turns out that the best way to tackle it, at least for me, was to shorten it to just one sentence and then work from there. I kid you not. I'll tell you how it came about:

I had the great good fortune of being invited to the premiere screening of "Generation RX", which was showing at the Cleveland Film Festival. I was to be the guest of the documentary's writer/director, Kevin P. Miller. BTW, if you've not yet seen it, do. By the time the film ended, there was hardly a dry eye in the theater. Anyway, once my agent knew I was going to be at a film festival, a place where there are nearly endless opportunities to meet the press, she told me I needed to come up with an "elevator pitch": a one-sentence, 20- or 30-second attention-grabbing description of my book.

What?? I thought, preparing to panic, "750 pages boiled down to one sentence? You've got to be kidding! There's no way ..."

Of course, I didn't say that. I just chewed up the inside of my mouth, tried to keep my heart from pounding its way out of my chest and up into my throat, and said, "OK. I'll try."

"Don't try," she admonished, "Do it." If there was even going to be the slightest chance I might be introduced to a reporter, she told me, I needed to be able to pitch my book to them for a future interview, and I'd only have 20 seconds in which to do that.

So I agonized and scribbled and typed and edited and swore (yes, I'm embarrassed to say, I was driven to a bit of profanity in the process... fortunately, I was alone!) and then scribbled and typed some more, but eventually -- in about two days -- I came up with one perfect sentence.

From there -- surprise, surprise -- the synopsis became a piece of cake.

We writers tend to love our words, and the biggest mistake we seem to make when facing the prospect of having to condense them for something like this, is that we try to re-write the book all over again. What I learned from that exercise is that it's so much easier to start with something tiny and expand upon it, then it is to start with something huge (like my outrageously long novel) and shrink it.

Once I had that single, perfect sentence, my agent said, "OK, Pamela, now compose a 100 word synopsis. You'll need that for press releases and newspaper announcements as we get closer to the launch date." That only took about an hour to write and perfect, though I admit I have tweaked it multiple times over the past year. And after that, she had me write three more -- 200, 500 and 750 words -- so I could have something to send to the media when they want to do an interview, or to post on my website, or to begin requesting endorsements, and so on. All of which was fine with me because, once I had the 100 words, the rest came VERY easily.

Pamela S. K. Glasner is an author, historian, public speaker and social advocate. Her website is www.lodestarre.com . She can also be found on Facebook at http://tinyurl.com/2cn8bpo . To date, two of her works have been optioned by independent production companies; one is in the early stages of development, the other is in pre-production. Ms. Glasner is scheduled to be a featured speaker at Dr. Peter Breggin's national conference for The Center for The Study of Empathic Therapy in Syracuse, New York, to be held April 8-10, 2011.